Those Healthy Yankees: Graham and Alcott

April, 2016

Sylvester Graham and William Andrus Alcott were men of their disease-ridden times, amongst the first American promoters of “health food,” “phys-ed” and temperate living for health in both the here and now — and the afterlife.

In 1832, the Great Cholera Epidemic hit the United States. It was another of the epidemics and plagues that had affected the world since at least late Roman times. No one understood how these instances of mass illness and death occurred, but the pattern of transmission along trade routes suggested some kind of agent in the illness. In the case of cholera, the disease came out of Bengal in India in the wake of the British conquest there during the Napoleonic Wars. It travelled from Calcutta to London and then, in 1832, to New York. Cholera then spread upriver and along the Erie Canal, killing thousands. Diagnosis was superficial, prevention was guessed at; cures were ineffectual; attempts at relief were often as deadly as the disease, and recovery was left to the patient.

Americans suffered then from other diseases as well, sometimes affecting more people, such as tuberculosis (TB), yellow fever and malaria. TB was a common complaint and generally killed a quarter of those affected, being a slow-moving disease. Malaria and yellow fever differed in their effects, with malaria seeming to be slow-moving like TB and yellow fever striking seasonally and killing quickly. Smallpox’s effect resembled other epidemics, but by the 1800s, the effectiveness of a crude vaccination meant that, while its causes were poorly understood, the disease could be controlled.

The result of the loss of life from these and other illnesses led people at the time to try and figure out what caused them to spread. Two kinds of answers were proposed; the first was an environmental one that disease came from unhealthy ‘miasmatic’ conditions, such as bad air, fetid swamps, uncleanliness and exposure to poor living conditions. The second was that disease arose from poor nutrition, alcoholism and general bad behavior, or physical weakness on the part of the victims.

Neither answer was satisfactory, but they were based upon medical treatises that dated in some cases back to Roman times. Attempts by medical people to treat them were as bad as the diseases, consisting of ‘bleeding’ the patient or giving doses of calomel (mercury chloride).

By and large, the training and reputation of medical personnel was low, especially on the frontier, where almost all educational standards were low. Outside the cities, people were left largely to their own devices in preventing and dealing with disease.

Some Americans began to fix on the notion that disease could be prevented, if only people were to live proper lives, consume food in a moderate fashion, drink only pure water and keep their physiques in proper order.

This package came wrapped in a popular religious attitude called Arminianism, which posited that God made the world good, and that it was the duty of everyone to pursue salvation in both a moral and physical sense. It was not a coincidence that moral and physical virtues were seen as being tied together.

The earliest prominent proponent of this conjunction was a Connecticut man, Sylvester Graham, who had suffered from ill health as he grew up. Graham attended, but did not graduate from, Amherst College. At 34, he became a Presbyterian minister to a rural congregation in New Jersey. His ministerial career did not last long: two years later, in 1830, he was lecturing to the Philadelphia Temperance Society. Soon after, he was lecturing on the wider need for temperance in the eating of food, in much the fashion as early temperance lecturers approached alcohol — don’t drink, but if you must, keep it temperate.

Graham looked for validation for his idea that food must be consumed in a spirit of tempered abstinence.

He borrowed ideas from France about the body as a ‘chemical machine,’ and came up with the notion that stimulation of the digestive system was at the root of many human health problems. The theory was these could be prevented by a calm lifestyle, which included only eating foods that were not “stimulating” and assisted digestion. He went on to apply his temperance argument to sexual relations and emotional control as well.

Graham was fixed on the idea that Christian theology was congruent with the laws of nature. By the time the cholera epidemic hit New York City, he lectured there that symptoms of gastrointestinal irritation pointed to people eating wrongly and general misbehaving.

But, as was discovered a couple of decades later, one of the prime causes for the spread of cholera was well water infected with the cholera bacillus. Graham’s advocacy of drinking water rather than alcohol — which would have killed the germs — was unfortunate.

Today, his name lives on in the ‘graham cracker’, a kids’ staple for many generations (and still a favorite of mine). Graham was less interested in the graham cracker than returning to a rough type of bread that had been replaced in the cities by white bread. ‘Well-made bread’…must contain…’all the natural properties of wheat,’ he said, and published a recipe for ‘graham bread’ in the 1829 New Hydropathic Cookbook.

He felt that other foods should not be altered much from their natural condition either, which led to a prohibition on meat consumption.

In 1835, Graham moved to Boston, where the temperance movement and the antislavery movement were joined with a growing food-health movement, spurred by by William Andrus Alcott, brother of Bronson Alcott,  a transcendentalist leader and the father of writer Louisa May Alcott. There was some rivalry between Graham and Alcott, and both endured opposition to their ideas from local grocers and butchers in the city.

Graham was reputed to be vain, obtuse and obsessive, so attacks were likely not a surprise to him, but a butchers’ riot was too much.

Shaken, he moved from Boston to Northampton, Maine, and died there in 1851 at the age of 57. His relatively young age at death shocked many of his followers and caused some to stray from Grahamism.

The most interesting part of Alcott’s approach to preventive health was that he was more willing to play down the doctrinaire religious force within Grahamism in order to point out the social benefits of a good lifestyle in food and drink. Alcott had attended Yale and taken a medical degree, with a thesis on TB, of special relevance to him as he suspected he himself was a sufferer. After graduation, he tried medicines to relieve his symptoms, but then found a temperate lifestyle to be more useful.

Alcott taught for a couple of years before attending Yale, and his experience led to the idea that children should be taught basic nutrition and physiology as part of the school curriculum; he was the originator of ‘phys-ed’ classes.

Alcott promoted health reform as a Christian redemption project, to help all live a good life — and good afterlife; promoted information about nutrition, and  helped form the American Physiological Society in 1837.

In an address to the society Alcott bluntly focused on prevention rather than cure as the best health care and waxed, enthusiastically: ‘In the present blaze of physiological light, we can, in ways and processes almost innumerable, manufacture human health to an extent not formerly dreamed of.’ As president of the society, he helped establish what may be America’s first “health food” store, which stocked, of course, “Graham” bread, fresh fruits and vegetables.


 Copyright Jim McNiven 2016

This column is part of Jim McNiven’s project The Yankee Road: Tracing the Journey of the New England Tribe that Created Modern America.


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Jim McNiven

James McNiven has a PhD from the University of Michigan. He has written widely on public policy and economic development issues and is the co-author of three books. His most recent research has been about the relationship of demographic changes to Canadian regional economic development. He also has an interest in American business history and continues to teach at Dalhousie on a part-time basis.






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