Library of Health sought to distance itself from the claims of pseudo-science and religious heresy that traditionally followed meat abstainers, arguing that dietary reform “is indeed nothing less than the application of Christianity to the physical condition and wants of man.”
May 1, 1836
Vegetable Diet: As Sanctioned by Medical Men, and by Experience in All Ages
William Alcott was one of the founding and leading members of the APS and lent credibility to the growth of the meatless cause. He began advocating for a vegetable diet by the early 1830s, the heyday of Grahamism. Unlike Graham, however, Alcott was a formally trained physician, graduating from Yale University in 1836. He began publishing a series of treatises attacking such vices as alcohol, tobacco, and sexual intemperance. Alcott’s advocacy of a meatless diet gained mass exposure for the first time in a letter supporting the Graham system, which he published in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal in May 1836. A war of words had broken out in the journal between Sylvester Graham and Thomas Lee, superintendent of the McLean Asylum in Charlestown, Massachusetts. Lee claimed that Grahamism was “destructive in its operation,” a cause of insanity and “emasculation.” Graham, charged Lee, was “an intolerable impostor.” Further, Lee claimed, Graham believed that it would be better for a patient to starve to death rather than dine on flesh foods. Graham, in response, defended himself and his dietary system, accusing Lee of being driven by “a morbidly excited imagination” and producing a “most dangerous article to be thrown before the public.” Graham concluded that Lee was threatened by new ideas, part of a medical establishment apt to treat its patients with “flesh, wine and opium.” A month later, William Alcott entered the fray. Writing to the journal in defense of the Graham system, Alcott emphasized his own credentials as a trained medical professional. Alcott claimed that doctors like Lee were driven by “prejudice” and “supposed facts.” Medical doctors were usually reasonable and rational. When it came to the Graham system, however, established medicine was “exceedingly lame” in its observations. Alcott argued that millions of laborers worldwide—particularly in northern Europe—had subsisted on vegetable diets for years and did not go insane. The letter closed with Alcott’s own conversion story, claiming to have “abstained suddenly, about six years ago, from animal food, and from all fermented, narcotic, and alcoholic drinks; and have confi ned myself, to this hour, to vegetable food and water.” The results were immediately observable to himself and those around him, causing “great gain” in mind and body. Alcott ended his missive by asking the public at large to judge whether or not he—a medical doctor, aft er all—was in the throes of insanity.
This debate illustrated a larger change for proto-vegetarianism as the movement began shifting. Graham and his followers were harsh critics of doctors and established medical science. However, in the late 1830s food reformers began emphasizing meatless fare’s legitimacy based on the scientific principles of physiology. Proto-vegetarians during this period defi ned themselves by proclaiming their medical expertise rather than their perspectives as outsiders. Organizations such as the American Physiological Society used medical credentials to support their controversial calls for dietary reform.
The closing of the Graham Journal of Health and Longevity at the end of 1839 enabled Alcott’s Library of Health to emerge as the new public voice of meat abstention in the United States. Although not an official voice of the APS, Library of Health frequently reported on its activities. Originally published in 1837, Alcott’s journal was similar to the Graham Journal in structure. However, Library of Health touted its writers’ credentials as medical experts, advocating a vegetable diet as one component of healthy living. The journal hoped to take advantage of Alcott’s medical pedigree, assuring readers that “we began the following volume with the full intention of striking a heavy blow at quackery. . . . Quackery is not confined to the venders of nostrums, nor to any one class of citizens; it is rife everywhere.” Library of Health sought to distance itself from the claims of pseudo-science and religious heresy that traditionally followed meat abstainers, arguing that dietary reform “is indeed nothing less than the application of Christianity to the physical condition and wants of man.”
Library of Health featured medical experts in its defense of a meat-free diet, further diff erentiating itself from the Grahamites’ more personal notion of medical care, a view that attacked mainstream medical practitioners. Amariah Bringham, superintendent of the Retreat for the Insane in Hartford, Connecticut, argued that flesh foods caused “an inflammatory fever of an unusual character for children” and that “infants who are accustomed to eat much animal food become robust, but at the same time passionate, violent and brutal.” Alcott noted the efforts of one medical doctor who opposed the use of emetics to induce vomiting. The doctor’s opinion was reached through years of observation, viewing irritated, expanded stomachs that suffered from poor digestion for years afterward. Reuben Mussey, a medical doctor, dietary and health reformer, and future president of the American Medical Association, frequently contributed to the journal. Mussey was regarded for his work exposing the poisonous nature of tobacco, which he claimed caused dizziness, stomach pain, and swollen feet. Another medical expert reported that hot drinks and foods made individuals more apt to catch a cold because extreme temperatures acted as a stimulant on the body. Alcott emphasized scientific credentials in appealing to the masses, subtitling a treatise on the merits of a vegetable diet “ As Sanctioned by Medical Men .”
Library of Health warned against the perils of dietary intemperance in all its forms. Poisoned cheese was widely available in the marketplace; an article claimed that small amounts of arsenic were used to tenderize curds, an assertion similar to Graham’s criticisms of the bread making industry. Late, heavy suppers were described as being “prejudicial to health,” leading to digestive problems and poor sleep. Condiments and sweets were condemned, as were complex, diversified diets; simplicity was far more advantageous and less stimulating. These criticisms were similar to Graham’s but were expressed through the language of medical expertise. Through 1839, the journal dealt with dietary issues in a generalized manner, rather than advocating the specific advantages of a meatless diet.