American Physiological Society (APS) was founded in 1837 in Boston and had 251 members by 1838. Members of the APS lectured against the effects of flesh foods, which caused “the most horrid, blasphemous thoughts” among its consumers.
January 1, 1841
Vegetable Diet: As Sanctioned by Medical Men, and by Experience in All Ages
In a January 1841 editorial focusing on the United States’ growing population of meat abstainers, the article’s author reflected on the current state of meatless dietetics in the United States. The writer proclaimed that “if the public choose to call us . . . Grahamites . . . we care very little. . . . Those to whom we may have the happiness to do a little good . . . will not care to inquire whether we bow at the shrine of any leader, ancient or modern.” The article was featured in the physiological journal Library of Health , which by the turn of the 1840s had supplanted the Graham Journal of Health and Longevity as the main published voice of meatless dietetics. At the risk of alienating its newly acquired readership, Library of Health touted the notion of individuals’ choices and scientific study, rather than the works of a single individual.
As 1840 began, American meatless dietary reform had grown from a small group of renegade church members in Philadelphia to a full-fledged, recognizable movement that spread across geographic boundaries, connected by the common bond of Sylvester Graham’s teachings. But now that a visible community of meatless dietary reformers had formed, a question remained: How would this group continue to grow? Public lectures and the printed word had served proto-vegetarians well, yet these methods were also limited, since they emphasized the growth of group leaders’ popularity while leaving practitioners around the country somewhat disconnected. Through the 1840s a variety of reformers experimented with the social and political reform possibilities connected to abstention from meat. While these reformers remained somewhat fractured through the decade, by its end a variety of groups began to coalesce and become a single movement.
During this transitional period, reformers further developed their principles, fusing the realms of health and science with dietary and social reform. In order to continue growing they needed a centralized voice to unify the spectrum of dietary reformers. With the Graham Journal of Health and Longevity ending publication in December 1839, William Alcott’s Library of Health filled the void. Other attempts, including a utopian experiment at Fruitlands and the use of water cure, linked dietary choice directly with social reform, expanding the motivations for adherence to a meatless diet.
The process of disconnecting proto-vegetarianism from Grahamism began, ironically, during the height of Graham’s popularity. The interest that Graham sparked in dietetics and personal scientific and health study led to the establishment of other, more broad-based organizations. The American Physiological Society (APS) was a Boston-based group founded in 1837. Practitioners of a Graham diet began the society by integrating a Grahamite lifestyle into a larger physiologically focused ideology. The APS’s constitution reflected this desire, welcoming those interested in learning about the “influence of temperature, air, cleanliness, exercise, sleep, food, drink, medicine, &c., on human health and longevity.” The organization sought to democratize the study of health, making this knowledge accessible to “every citizen,” since it was “the duty of every person, of good sense, to make [health] a subject of daily study.” Unaffiliated with any particular religious group or leader, the APS also moved meat abstention away from religious, doctrinal structures and placed dietary reform fi rmly within the realm of scientific study.
The APS sought to empower its members by diff using “a knowledge of the laws of life, and of the means of promoting human health and longevity.” In this sense the APS’s goals were similar to Graham’s. However, through its organizational-based structure, the APS formed a body that emphasized the collective work of its membership rather than the deeds and words of a leader. The organization met on the first Wednesday of each month and held a larger annual gathering each May. All members in attendance at the annual meeting voted for organizational officers. The APS at its founding had 206 members; nearly 40 percent were women. The group’s membership grew to 251 by 1838, though the organization estimated that closer to 400 individuals (including the family members of APS members) followed its dietary recommendations. The large presence of women in the APS, while challenging some existing social structures in terms of promoting scientific knowledge, also reflected predominant notions of food and family. Women were, after all, most often in charge of craft ing family diets.
The APS thus also included a Ladies Physiological Society, which met separately from the larger group throughout the organization’s three-year existence. The group organized public lectures and met regularly to discuss meatless living, building a small community of like-minded reformers who wrestled with the most practical ways to live a reform lifestyle. Members of the APS lectured against the effects of flesh foods, which caused “the most horrid, blasphemous thoughts” among its consumers. However, the APS was careful to not appear doctrinal in its beliefs, guided by scientific study rather than adherence to a preconceived philosophy. The organization urged members to pay “strict attention to the importance of air, temperature, clothing . . . and a thousand other things besides diet and drink.” However, “as to imposing on the world any system, even the ‘Graham System,’ excellent as we believe that to be[,] . . . we have never intended it.” The APS and its members largely believed in the efficacy of Grahamism, but they also believed in the need to free meatless dietary reform from the shadow of Sylvester Graham.