James C Whorton. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas, Volume 2, Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Human populations often have been obliged to subsist on an all-vegetable diet because of a poverty or scarcity of animal foods. The term “vegetarianism,” nevertheless, is usually reserved for the practice of voluntary abstention from flesh on the basis of religious, spiritual, ethical, hygienic, or environmental considerations. These in turn have led to still finer distinctions regarding exactly what nonmeat articles of diet are permissible, resulting in the fragmentation of vegetarians into several groups. The great majority of adherents are “lacto-ovo” vegetarians, who reject flesh but find dairy products and eggs acceptable. Smaller groups include “vegans,” who admit no animal products whatsoever into their diet; “lacto-vegetarians,” who consume milk but not eggs; “ovo-vegetarians,” who allow eggs but not milk; “fruitarians,” who eat only fruits and nuts; “raw foodists”; and “natural hygienists,” who scorn even vegetable foods if these have been processed or refined. And because—for all those classes—vegetarianism implies a concern to persuade others to adopt meatless diets, the history of vegetarianism is, at core, the history of the development of arguments used to justify and to proselytize for a vegetable diet.
Vegetarianism in Eastern Religion
The most notable examples of a religious basis for vegetarianism are to be found in Asian culture. Hinduism, though not requiring a strictly vegetable diet, has fostered a significant tradition of vegetarianism among certain believers for more than two millennia. The practice is still more widespread in Buddhism, where the doctrine of ahimsa, or nonviolent treatment of all beings, forbids adherents to kill animals for food. Many Buddhists do, nevertheless, eat meat, supporting the indulgence with the argument that the animal was killed by others. Jainism, likewise, espouses ahimsa and specifically denies meat to any practitioners of the faith (Barkas 1975; Akers 1983: 157-64).
Vegetarianism has continued as a common practice down to the present in Asia, especially in India. In Western societies, religion has also been a factor in the history of vegetarianism, but there it has played a relatively minor role compared to philosophical and scientific influences. The Western rationale for a vegetable diet is, in truth, the result of a considerably more complicated evolution shaped by a variety of cultural forces, which are outlined in this chapter (Whorton 1994).
Vegetarianism in Antiquity
The term “vegetarianism” was coined relatively recently, in the mid-nineteenth century, as the consumption of a flesh-free regimen began to assume the form of an organized movement. As a practice, however, it dates to much earlier times. No later than the third century A.D., in fact, Porphyry could describe the doctrine as already “ancient,” as well as characterize the self-image vegetarianism had long embraced and would retain: It was “a dogma … dear to the Gods” (Porphyry 1965: 22).
The antiquity of the dogma can be traced to Pythagoras, the Greek natural philosopher of the sixth century B.C., who founded a religious community in southern Italy in which vegetarianism is reputed to have been part of the rule of life. Pythagoras scorned the eating of meat because of his belief in the Orphic concept of the transmigration of souls: If human spirits were reborn in other creatures, animal souls must be of the same quality as human souls, and animals must be as deserving of moral treatment as people. The killing of an animal was equivalent to murder, and the eating of it akin to cannibalism (Dombrowski 1984; Spencer 1993).
Additional justifications of vegetarianism with arguments dear to the gods were forwarded by several authors in later antiquity. During the first two centuries of the Christian era, Ovid and Plutarch both denounced slaughter as vicious treatment of innocent animals: “O horrible cruelty!” the latter remonstrated, that “for the sake of some little mouthful of flesh, we deprive a soul of the sun and light, and of that proportion of life and time it had been born into the world to enjoy” (Plutarch 1898: 6). Plutarch’s essay “Of Eating of Flesh,” in fact, provided the most comprehensive yet concise statement against conventional diet to be penned before the Renaissance and offered several objections that would become stock components of the vegetarian rationale on to the present day. These included physical arguments to complement the spiritual ones.
Flesh foods, Plutarch asserted, “by clogging and cloying” the body, “render [men’s] very minds and intellects gross” (Plutarch 1898: 9). People, furthermore, could not have been intended by nature to be meat eaters, “for a human body no ways resembles those that were born for ravenousness” (Plutarch 1898: 7); it lacks fangs, claws, and all the other predatory equipment of carnivores. Finally, meat was prejudicial to health, causing “grievous oppressions and qualmy indigestions,” and bringing “sickness and heaviness upon the body” (Plutarch 1898: 14).
The last vegetarian treatise from antiquity was the third-century work of the neo-Platonist Porphyry, On Abstinence from Animal Food, an elaboration of earlier authors’ objections to meat, with particular emphasis on vegetable diet for spiritual purification: “The eye of the soul will become free, and will be established as in a port beyond the smoke and the waves of the corporeal nature” (Porphyry 1965: 53). Nevertheless, as Plutarch had recognized, “it is indeed a hard and difficult task … to dispute with men’s bellies, that have no ears” (Plutarch 1898: 10).
The despair of vegetarians throughout the centuries has been that, in most people, the stomach speaks more loudly than the conscience, and it demands flesh. Nor did the rise of Christianity to cultural dominance strengthen the voice of conscience in support of animal welfare. Although the medieval church harbored vegetarian sects such as the Manichees, the orthodox position was that presented by Aquinas, that humankind had been granted dominion over the animal creation to use to suit their needs. Aquinas’s insistence on rationality as a requirement for the extension of moral consideration to a being overrode the notion of kinship between people and animals that had been put forward by ancient vegetarians (Aquinas 1989: 146, 188). To be sure, individual church luminaries—Saints John Chrysostom and Benedict, for example—forswore the consumption of meat; but their motivation was primarily the wish to suppress their own carnal appetites rather than to extend compassion to the animal creation (Dombrowski 1984).
The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries
Not until the seventeenth century was there to be any expansion of the brief against meat eating, but then one encounters, in the works of Thomas Tryon, the most broad-based argument yet for the virtues of a vegetable diet (that an Englishman should revive vegetarianism was prophetic, for England would serve as the fountainhead of vegetarian thought well into the nineteenth century). In The Way to Health, Long Life and Happiness (1683: 447), this dissenting religionist-cum-health-reformer and sometime poet begged readers to consider,
How shall they but Bestial grow,
That thus to feed on Beasts are willing?
Or why should they a long Life know,
Who daily practice KILLING?
In those two couplets is expressed much of the modern rationale for a vegetarian diet. The killing of animals must be discountenanced both because it inflicts pain and death on “fellow creatures” and because scripture indicates that the original diet appointed by God for humankind was meatless (Gen. 1:29). Those who feed on meat will grow bestial in both mind and spirit, whereas those who actually carry out the slaughter of animals for food will become so hardened to suffering as to lose compassion for fellow humans as well, and even to commit crimes against them.
But Tryon’s case against flesh food is most significant for raising the issue of physical health to a new level of emphasis. He did not merely declare that meat eaters would not know a long life or would in other ways suffer infirmity. Tryon proposed a distinct physical mechanism for flesh food’s mischief, observing that “nothing so soon turns to Putrifaction” as meat, then adding that “’tis certain, such sorts of food as are subject to putrifie before they are eaten, are also liable to the same afterwards” (Tryon 1683: 376).
Meat, in other words, because it is highly putrescible even after ingestion, must “breed great store of noxious Humours” (Tryon 1683: 377). There was the pathological justification for Tryon’s charge that had it not been for the adoption of a carnivorous diet, “Man had not contracted so many Diseases in his Body” (Tryon 1683: 446). Indeed, flesh eating produced so much sickness, and vice as well, that if it were abandoned, he suggested, society would have no need for physicians or lawyers (Tryon 1683; Ryder 1979).
Both the medical and the moral strains would remain central to vegetarian philosophy throughout the 1700s. Toward the end of that century, moreover, each would take on additional import. Greater attention to the moral implications of diet was encouraged by developments in two areas of inquiry in particular: physiology and religion. The former discipline had been dragged into the arena of philosophical dispute in the mid-seventeenth century by the physiological theories of René Descartes.
The Cartesian proposal that beasts were mere automata, utterly lacking in consciousness and sensation, had focused scientists’ and philosophers’ attention on the question of animal pain and provoked extensive debate over the morality of slaughter, vivi-section experiments, and other uses of animals for human benefit (Cottingham 1978). It was generally agreed that Descartes had erred, that animals truly do experience pain; but it was also suggested that their pain is not felt as keenly as that of humans, and that, in any event, people are justified in using lower creatures to realize their own desires.
During the eighteenth century, however, studies of the nervous system demonstrated close structural similarities between humans and higher animals, sharply increasing the probability that brutes suffered pain as severely as people: “Answer me, mechanist,” Voltaire sneered at the Cartesian physiologists, “Has nature arranged all the springs of feeling in this animal in order that he should not feel? Has he nerves in order to be unmoved?” (Voltaire 1962: 113). At the same time, and in England especially, several intellectual currents were fostering a stronger feeling of relationship to animals. The Enlightenment’s promotion of natural rights and humanitarian sympathy for the less fortunate encouraged a heightened sensitivity to physical pain and abhorrence of cruelty that was being occasionally extended to lower creatures by the later 1700s.
Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, expressed the new solicitude for animal welfare in his refutation (1789) of the argument that brutes do not deserve kindness because they are not rational beings. “The question,” he insisted, “is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” (Bentham 1961: 380-1). That point was not necessarily an endorsement of vegetarianism; as Bentham observed, a butcher might give an animal a quicker and less painful death than it could expect from nature (implying that meat eating was actually the more humane diet) (Bentham 1961).
Nevertheless, every animal had a right—the word is Bentham’s—not to be tormented. This concept of animal rights was, meanwhile, being advanced by several other Enlightenment authors, some of whom included the right not to be used as food. Simultaneously, English religious thought was entertaining the supposition that animals have souls and even a heaven, thereby at least suggesting a neo-Pythagorean condemnation of flesh eating (Stevenson 1956; Turner 1980: 1-14).
The Nineteenth Century
Regard for animal welfare was intensified still further at the beginning of the nineteenth century by a more politically directed religious movement. Evangelicalism, the outgrowth of John Wesley’s determination to make Christianity a “social gospel,” was dedicated through aggressive political action to relieving the miseries of society’s downtrodden and exploited. Evangelicals succeeded in moving Parliament to legislate against the slave trade, child labor, Britain’s barbaric penal code, and numerous other injustices. Among Evangelical good works was an animal protection campaign that attacked the mistreatment of animals used for labor or sport and resulted in Western society’s first animal welfare legislation, a law passed in 1822 to protect work animals from abuse (Turner 1980: 15-38).
The new climate of distaste for animal cruelty gave vegetarianism added appeal, of course; and though it would remain the doctrine of a small fringe group, membership in the fold did increase significantly around the turn of the nineteenth century. Vegetarian literature grew apace, no longer just an occasional volume from an isolated eccentric but now a steady flow of treatises voicing outrage at the cruel ravages visited upon defenseless creatures. The title of the first major work in this new genre captures its prevailing sentiment perfectly: The Cry of Nature, as John Oswald named his book, Or, an Appeal to Mercy and to Justice, on Behalf of the Persecuted Animals (1791). Romantic sensitivity to the beauty and innocence of nature gushed through such volumes; Oswald’s frontispiece, for example, portrayed a slaughtered fawn spilling its blood upon the earth while its mother tearfully called on it to rise. Nearby, an unclothed child of nature hid her face in shame. “Come,” Oswald invited, “approach and examine with attention this dead body. It was late a playful fawn, which, skipping and bounding … awoke, in the soul of the feeling observer, a thousand tender emotions. But the butcher’s knife hath laid low the delight of a fond dam, and the darling of nature is now stretched in gore upon the ground” (Oswald 1791: 22-3).
If the moral hideousness of slaying animals for food was the dominant theme of early-century vegetarianism, the physical repulsiveness of flesh food was hardly overlooked. Oswald requested readers to gaze upon the scene of carnage a second time: “Approach, I say, … and tell me, tell me, does this ghastly spectacle whet your appetite? Delights your eyes the sight of blood? Is the steam of gore grateful to your nostrils, or pleasing to the touch, the icy ribs of death? … or with a species of rhetoric, pitiful as it is perverse, will you still persist in your endeavour to persuade us, that to murder an innocent animal, is not cruel nor unjust; and that to feed upon a corpse, is neither filthy nor unfit?” (Oswald 1791: 22-3).
Filthy and unfit are moral terms, of course, but they have physiological connotations as well. What one sees here, and can find expressed still more overtly in subsequent vegetarian literature, is the suggestion that the revulsion produced by the sight of blood and the smell of gore is not simply an aesthetic reaction; it is also a physiological response to physical filth and physical unfitness, an indication that the human body is not designed to receive such food as nutriment.
Vegetarianism, Science, and Medicine
The physiological superiority of a vegetable diet was an especially critical point to demonstrate by the beginning of the nineteenth century. Enlightenment philosophy had elevated science to the position of an indispensable method of investigation and proof. Therefore, if the newly energized vegetarianism of the early 1800s was to legitimate itself in society’s eyes, it had to prove itself nutritionally as well as spiritually.
It had to be demonstrated, first of all, that one could survive in reasonable health without flesh foods. It was generally assumed that meat, being most closely akin chemically to human muscle, must be more easily digested and assimilated than plants and provide greater strength and endurance. An all-vegetable diet, this reasoning supposed, must be debilitating, and surely self-preservation carried greater moral weight than kindness to other species.
Two English physicians were especially influential for presenting evidence that vegetarianism was not, after all, a form of slow suicide. The first was George Cheyne, one of the most widely read health writers of the eighteenth century. A high liver in his younger days, Cheyne turned to lacto-vegetarianism in the 1720s in order to reduce his now bloated and unwieldy 32-stone frame. But not only did he manage to shed considerable weight on his diet of milk and vegetables; various other complaints that had nagged him for years (headache and depression, for example) disappeared as well. Through subsequent observations of “my own crazy Carcase” (1734: xvi), as well as of numerous patients, Cheyne became convinced that flesh food “inflames the Passions, and shortens Life, begets chronical Distempers, and a decrepid Age” (Cheyne 1734: 94). His several guidebooks to health were the first to recommend vegetarianism almost exclusively for reasons of physical well-being and to back claims of health with clinical cases.
Still more clinical evidence of the healthfulness of a vegetable diet was presented in 1809 by another London practitioner, William Lambe. Lambe had relieved himself of long-standing illness three years earlier by removing meat from his table. He had then applied that diet to the care of his patients and succeeded in curing, he believed, numerous cases of asthma, tuberculosis, and other chronic complaints, including cancer. Although he insisted that “a strict vegetable regimen” was an “absolute necessity” in the management of chronic illness, he was less forceful in his advocacy of vegetarianism for the healthy. He proposed only that meat was unnecessary, and that “what is unnecessary cannot be natural, [and] what is not natural cannot be useful” (Lambe 1815: 172).
Lambe’s branding of meat as unnatural food for humans did sway several individuals well known in English society to convert to vegetarianism. Most prominent of all among these was the Romantic poet Percy Shelley, who in 1813 produced an emotionally charged pamphlet titled A Vindication of Natural Diet. In this work, logic was subjected to a fair amount of violence, yet the Vindication did achieve a certain balance by assigning roughly equal weight to both the moral and the physical objections to a flesh diet.
On the one side, the bloody excesses of the French Revolution and the tyranny of Napoleon were credited to the Gallic appetite for rare meat. But on the other, there was the assurance that “the bile-suffused cheek of Buonoparte, his wrinkled brow, and yellow eye, the ceaseless inquietude of his nervous system” were incontrovertible proof that he had not “descended from a race of vegetable feeders” (Shelley 1884: 17). Meat, Shelley declared bluntly, is “demonstrably pernicious” (20), as clear a demonstration as any being the “easiness of breathing” (24) acquired by vegetarians, granting them “a remarkable exemption from that powerful and difficult panting now felt by almost everyone after hastily climbing an ordinary mountain” (24).
Realistically, of course, the uphill battle had to be fought by vegetarians. Not only was the weight of medical opinion still on the side of meat, so was public opinion and, even more important, popular taste: “The forbidding of animal food,” Lambe had despaired, is “an injunction that sounds more unwelcome to English ears than any perhaps that could be given” (Lambe 1815: 130). For such prejudice to be overcome, meat had to be transformed into a positive menace by the construction of physical arguments that were more sophisticated than were warnings that flesh eaters make poor alpinists. The elevation of physiology to primacy in the ongoing formulation of a rationale for vegetarianism, however, was the work of American theorists rather than English or other European ones.
Vegetarianism in America
Vegetarianism was brought to the United States toward the end of the 1810s by William Metcalfe, an envoy of the Bible Christian Church. The first organization in modern times to make vegetarianism one of the requirements of membership, the Church had been founded in Manchester, England, in 1807 by the Swedenborgian minister William Cowherd (there is a Dickensian irony in the names of the vegetarian leaders of the early 1800s—Cowherd, Metcalfe, and Lambe all conjuring up visions of chops and roasts). Though motivated in part by humanitarian sentiment, Cowherd had been equally impressed by the writings of Cheyne, and he forbade his congregation meat (and alcohol too), largely for reasons of health (Forward 1898: 7).
The Bible Christian sect would continue in existence in England until the 1880s at least, but its greatest impact came early in the century and on American soil. About 1830, in the process of organizing a New World branch of his church in Philadelphia, Metcalfe caught the attention of Sylvester Graham, a Presbyterian minister turned temperance lecturer. Graham, at that time, was in the process of expanding temperance into an all-inclusive program of physical and moral reform, and Metcalfe’s understanding of the virtues of a vegetable diet was in perfect philosophical harmony with the American’s own view of health behavior generally.
Graham’s popular health reform movement, the first stage of what would become an enduring tradition of hygienic extremism in America, operated on the assumption that the laws of health were as much the dictates of God as the Ten Commandments, and, therefore, the two sets of rules could not conflict: Physiology must be congruent with morality. Acting from this certainty, that any behavior that tarnished the soul must also injure the body, Graham and his health reform comrades bombarded the public of the 1830s to 1850s with health injunctions against alcohol, extramarital sex, late-night entertainments, and sundry other practices both hateful and hurtful; included among these, by necessity, was the consumption of meat (Whorton 1977, 1982).
Graham hardly labored alone in erecting more extensive physiological supports for vegetarianism. Numerous health reformers participated, most notably William Andrus Alcott, who in the late 1830s supplanted Graham as commander of the forces of health reform. One of the most prolific self-help writers of the entire nineteenth century, Alcott contributed an 1838 volume under the title Vegetable Diet, specifying in his subtitle that vegetarianism was Sanctioned by Medical Men and by Experience in All Ages. The book was intended, in short, to show that science corroborated Christian moral principles (or at least his interpretation of the spirit of compassion of the New Testament). Comparative anatomy was one of the sciences applied to the task, though the similarity of human teeth and intestines to those of herbivores had been pointed out by any number of earlier authors. Rather it was the still emerging science of nutrition that seemed to offer the most up-to-date demonstration that meat was a poison, and Alcott, Graham, and other health reformers mobilized an impressive array of entirely new nutrition-based arguments to prove their point.
The arguments were impressive, that is, for their quantity. Qualitatively, however, they were completely inadequate and scientifically invalid, both because of the period’s severely limited understanding of nutrition and biochemistry and because of health reformers’ determination to force science into the strait-jacket of their moral preconceptions. The latter was facilitated by the adoption of the theory of pathology that had recently been formulated by French physician François Broussais, a theory that attributed all illness to overstimulation of body tissues, especially those of the digestive tract.
As stimulation was already a loaded word morally—to the Victorian mind, arousal of carnal appetites and animal passions was the root of all evil—Broussais’s pathology offered an ideal foundation for the construction of a health reform version of vegetarianism. Consequently, stimulation arguments too numerous to recount were advanced by health reform apologists for vegetable diets throughout the antebellum period.
One effort, for example, interpreted the famous in vivo digestion experiments performed in the 1820s by William Beaumont on a man with a gastric fistula. Beaumont’s studies included measurement of the digestion times required by various foods, accomplished by tying food samples to a string, introducing them into the stomach, and retrieving them hourly for inspection. Beaumont’s conclusion was that, “generally speaking, vegetable aliment requires more time, and probably greater powers of the gastric organs, than animal” (Beaumont 1833: 36).
Graham objected, maintaining that greater speed of digestion is clearly an indication of a more intense response by the vital powers to the stimulus of food. The more intense a response, he reminded, the more intense the stimulus must be, so meat must be more stimulating—pathologically stimulating—than vegetables. There was additional evidence in the feeling of warmth experienced after a meal rich in meat. A later generation would attribute this to the specific dynamic action of protein, but for health reformers it was a “digestive fever” in which, according to Alcott,”the system … is inevitably worn into a premature dissolution, by the violent and unnatural heat of an over-stimulated and precipitate circulation”(Alcott 1840:221).
Meat even stimulated itself, decomposing (as Tryon had noted two centuries earlier) in much less time than vegetables. It followed that human flesh constructed from the excessively stimulated molecules of meat must also be less stable and more subject to decay. That explained, in Alcott’s opinion, why vegetarians smelled better. “The very exhalations of the lungs,” he asserted, “are purer, as is obvious from the breath. That of a vegetable-eater,” he had determined, “is perfectly sweet, while that of a flesheater is often as offensive as the smell of a charnel-house. This distinction is discernible even among the brute animals. Those which feed on grass … have a breath incomparably sweeter than those which prey on animals. Compare the camel, and horse, and cow, and sheep, and rabbit, with the tiger (if you choose to approach him), the wolf, the dog, the cat and the hawk. One comparison will be sufficient; you will never forget it” (Alcott 1838: 233-4).
Still more to the point, however, was that the unstable atoms of a carnivore’s muscles must be subject to more rapid molecular turnover than a vegetarian’s tissues and, hence, subject to accelerated aging and premature death. The mechanics of life could be summed up simply: “A man may not inaptly be compared with a watch—the faster it goes the sooner it will run down” (Cambell 1837: 291).
The condemnation of fast living was a double entendre, for try as they might to present their ideas as concrete science, health reform vegetarians could never stop moralizing. Alcott, for instance, immediately followed his alarm over the “violent and unnatural heat” of a flesh eater’s digestive fever with the observation that a vegetable diet is cooling, and “has a tendency to temper the passions” (Alcott 1840: 221). Colleague Russell Trall was even more uneasy about untempered passions, warning that “no delusion on earth [is] so widespread [as] this, which confuses stimulation with nutrition. It is the very parent source of that awful … multitude of errors, which are leading the nations of the earth into all manner of riotous living, and urging them on in the road to swift destruction” (Trall 1860: 10).
To their credit, health reform vegetarians balanced their thrilling flights of theory with down-to-earth demonstrations by cases. The proof of the theory, after all, was in the state of health of those who practiced it, and history could offer robust vegetarians aplenty in evidence. The first to be recognized, predictably, were the antediluvians, those original folk whose simple diet kept them vigorous all the way to the end of their 900 years. But pagans could serve the cause as well, though, surprisingly, it was pagan soldiers, especially those of the Roman army, who were held up as paragons of hygiene, as they had marched to their greatest victories on plain vegetable rations.
The incongruity of the diet of gentleness and benevolence providing the strength for battlefield slaughter was missed by the health reformers in their excitement over the physical glory of the vegetarians of antiquity. Subsistence on vegetable food, according to an agitated Graham, was “true of all those ancient armies whose success depended more on bodily strength and personal prowess, in wielding warclubs and grappling man with man in the fierce exercise of muscular power, and dashing each other furiously to the earth, mangled and crushed and killed” (Graham 1839: 188).
More recent, and less brutal, examples were more convincing and suitable. Alcott allotted nearly 200 pages of his book on vegetable diet to the presentation of testimonials, including such samples of prodigious vitality as Amos Townsend, a graminivorous bank cashier, who could “dictate a letter, count money, and hold conversation with an individual, all at the same time, with no embarrassment” (Alcott 1838: 75-6).
The Establishment of Vegetarian Societies
That American vegetarians’ more pronounced orientation toward health impressed European counterparts is evident from the deliberations associated with the founding of the first national vegetarian organization. On September 30, 1847, meat abstainers from all parts of England gathered in Ramsgate, Kent, to form the Vegetarian Society. It was at this organizational meeting that the term “vegetarian” was coined, being taken from the Latin “vegetus”: lively or vigorous. The founding members then pledged themselves “to induce habits of abstinence from the flesh of animals as food, by the dissemination of information upon the subject, by means of tracts, essays, and lectures” (Forward 1898, 22).
When they next enumerated the “many advantages” of vegetable diet that would be presented through literature and lecture, the traditionally favored advantage, morality, was pushed to a subsidiary position; again, vigor was the emphasis, their list beginning with “physical” improvements. The Society’s monthly, The Vegetarian Messenger, was launched two years later and granted the same prominence to the physical in its messages; by 1853, 20 physicians and surgeons were included among the organization’s membership of more than 800 (Forward 1898: 22, 33).
The new group’s unorthodox philosophy immediately attracted ridicule. Punch, for instance, reported that “a prize is to be given [by the Society] for the quickest demolition of the largest quantity of turnips; and a silver medal will be awarded to the vegetarian who will dispose of one hundred heads of celery with the utmost celerity” (“Vegetarian Movement” 1848: 182). An organized movement of vegetarianism did spread with celerity. American vegetarians quickly followed the English lead, forming the American Vegetarian Society in 1850. As with its predecessor, the very first resolution adopted by this society recognized the value of a vegetable diet for health, declaring “that comparative anatomy, human physiology, and … chemical analysis … unitedly proclaim the position that not only the human race may, but should subsist upon the products of the vegetable kingdom” (“Proceedings” 1851: 6). Morality did nevertheless follow close behind, with the next three resolutions adopted claiming biblical and ethical sanctions for vegetarianism.
In the meantime, vegetarianism was undergoing a similar development on the European continent. There, treatises such as Thalysie: ou La Nouvelle Existence (Thalysie: Or the New Existence) by Jean Antoine Gleizes (1840), and Pflanzenkost, die Grundlage einer neuen Weltanschauung (Vegetable Diet, the Foundation of a New Worldview) by Gustav von Struve (1861), slowly raised public awareness of the dietary alternative and attracted followers.
The first national organization of vegetarianism on the continent was established in Germany in 1866, under the leadership of Eduard Baltzer. Vegetarian journals and magazines appeared during the midcentury, beginning in England with the Vegetarian Advocate (1848) and the Vegetarian Messenger (1849) and continuing in the United States with the American Vegetarian (1851), published by the American Vegetarian Society. During the decade of the 1870s, vegetarian restaurants were established in major European and American cities; London could boast of a dozen by the end of the century (Forward 1898: 102). Finally, the first international organization was launched in 1908: The International Vegetarian Union.
Britain and the United States remained the centers of vegetarian philosophy and practice into the twentieth century. In the former, the cause of vegetable diets was advanced with particular eloquence by Henry Salt (Mohandas Gandhi, among others, credited Salt for his conversion to vegetarianism). Author of numerous books calling for reform of social injustices, Salt was nevertheless best known (or most notorious) for his advocacy of Animals’ Rights Considered in Relation to Social Progress, the title of an 1892 volume that attacked every form of exploitation of the brute creation. There, and in his later The Logic of Vegetarianism (1899), Salt employed a thoroughly unsentimental approach to argue that philosophy and science, alike, required abstention from meat.
Philosophy, his logic of vegetable diet posited, could not support the common assumptions that human beings have no moral relationship or obligation to other creatures and that the killing of animals for food is a law of nature. The latter idea had become an especially popular justification for meat eating in the wake of Charles Darwin’s explanation of nature’s rule of survival of the fittest. The response of Salt, and other late-century vegetarians, was that cooperation among animals was as common a strategy for survival as competition, and that human cooperation with other species was positively enjoined by Darwin’s theor y that people had descended from animal ancestors: How could one justify the slaughter of creatures with whom humans shared a “bond of consanguinity” (Salt 1892, 1899:50)? Just such a bond had, in fact, been suggested by Darwin himself in The Descent of Man; there he presented a sizable body of evidence to demonstrate that “there is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties.…The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind” (Darwin 1874: 74, 143).
The Twentieth Century
John Harvey Kellogg
Evolutionary kinship with livestock was also a significant element in the case constructed by America’s most influential spokesman for vegetarianism in the early twentieth century. John Harvey Kellogg, however, gave greater emphasis to medical than to biological theory and propounded what was clearly the period’s most persuasive argument against the consumption of meat. Kellogg was bred, if not born, a Grahamite by virtue of his family’s membership in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, an institution that gave allegiance to Graham’s hygienic system on the basis of the divine, health-related visions experienced by spiritual leader Ellen White (Numbers 1976).
Kellogg also received training in hydropathy, an alternative system of medical practice that treated all conditions with applications of water and exhorted all patients to abide by Graham’s rules of health. (Kellogg’s mentor, and the leading figure in American hydropathy, Russell Trall, was a founding member and officer of the American Vegetarian Society, and the author of a volume titled The Scientific Basis of Vegetarianism ).
Kellogg also completed a program of orthodox medical training and then, in 1875, returned to his native Battle Creek, Michigan, to assume the directorship of a struggling hospital and health-education facility operated by the Adventist Church. Not only did he quickly transform the Battle Creek Sanitarium into a thriving business, he built it into the most famous health institution in the country from the 1880s until World War II. As part of the Sanitarium’s dietary program, Kellogg, along with his brother Will, created an assortment of meat substitutes and other vegetarian health foods, including the breakfast cereals that have immortalized the family’s name (Schwartz 1970; Whorton 1982: 201-38).
Kellogg also lectured tirelessly, from coast to coast, and wrote voluminously. In addition to editing the popular periodical Good Health, he authored several dozen books, addressing every aspect of personal health behavior from The Evils of Fashionable Dress, to Plain Facts about Sexual Life, to Colon Hygiene. The last topic, the health of the large bowel, represented Kellogg’s most significant contribution to the updating of the nutritional argument for vegetarianism. Here, he elaborated the dietary implications of one of the grand pathology fads of the turn of the twentieth century—intestinal autointoxication.
In the 1880s, laboratory scientists had isolated several substances produced in the intestinal tract through the bacterial putrefaction of undigested protein. The compounds were determined to be toxic when injected directly into the bloodstream in animals, and it was quickly supposed they might be absorbed from the colon into the human bloodstream and then circulated to play havoc throughout the body. Since these agents of self-poisoning were products of bacterial activity, the theory of autointoxication could be seen as an extension of medical bacteriology. Thus clutching the coattails of the germ theory, autointoxication swept into professional and popular awareness at the end of the nineteenth century (Chen and Chen 1989; Whorton 1991).
For Kellogg, autointoxication theory provided enough ammunition to support several book-length attacks on meat eating. In such works as Autointoxication or Intestinal Toxemia (1918), The Itinerary of a Breakfast (1919), and The Crippled Colon (1931), he expounded time and again on how the common diet contained so much protein from its flesh components as to encourage the growth and activity of proteolytic bacteria in the colon. As the microbes operated on undigested flesh food, the body would be “flooded with the most horrible and loathsome poisons” (Kellogg 1918: 131) and brought to suffer headache, depression, skin problems, chronic fatigue, damage to the liver, kidneys, and blood vessels, and other injuries totaling up to “enormous mischief. “Anyone who read to the end of Kellogg’s baleful list must have been ready to agree that “the marvel is not that human life is so short and so full of miseries, mental, moral, and physical, but that civilized human beings are able to live at all” (Kellogg 1918: 131).
“Civilized” referred to the fiber content of the ordinary diet, too. Modern people, Kellogg chided, ate too concentrated a diet, with insufficient bulk to stimulate the bowels to action. A vegetarian diet, he added for the unaware, was high in roughage. Its other advantage was that it was low in protein. The high-protein diet common to flesh eaters was ideal fodder for the putrefactive microorganisms of the colon, whereas its low-fiber content reduced its rate of movement to a crawl that gave the microbes time to convert all unabsorbed protein to poisons. In the meat eater’s sluggish bowels, Kellogg believed, lay “the secret of ninetenths of all the chronic ills from which civilized human beings suffer” (1919: 87), including “national inefficiency and physical unpreparedness,” as well as “not a small part of our moral and social maladies” (Kellogg 1919: 93).
Morality could be merged with medicine in other ways. In Shall We Slay to Eat, Kellogg applied a bacteriologic gloss to the age-old objection to the cruelty of slaughter. Reminding readers of the gentleness of unoffending cows and pigs (animals with whom humans were bound by evolution), Kellogg then forced them, Oswald-like, to look upon the “tide of gore,” the “quivering flesh,” the “writhing entrails” of the butchered animals, and to listen to their squealing and bleating as they died (Kellogg 1905: 145-67). What he counted upon ultimately to move his readers, though, was the abominable filth through which the tide of gore flowed. The Augean nastiness of the typical abattoir (here nauseatingly detailed a year before the publication of Upton Sinclair’s much more famous The Jungle) ensured that meat must be infested with every germ known: “Each juicy morsel,” Kellogg revealed, “is fairly alive and swarming with the identical micro-organisms found in a dead rat in a closet or the putrefying carcass of a cow” (Kellogg 1923: 107).
Even biochemistry, just then blossoming as a laboratory science, was recruited to the vegetarian campaign. The other major pathology fad of the early twentieth century was uricacidemia, a disease-inducing state discovered by London physician Alexander Haig. Through a process too involved to be recounted here, Haig convinced himself during the 1880s that his migraine attacks were due to excess uric acid in his blood. As so often happens when an enthusiast discovers the source of his own health problems, Haig was soon blaming uric acid for everybody’s problems. Through selective use of biochemical data and oversimplification of biochemical theory, Haig was able to propose mechanisms by which uric acid could cause every complaint from flatulence to cancer. His presentation of that thesis, a 900-page opus called Uric Acid As a Factor in the Causation of Disease, passed through seven editions in the 1890s and early 1900s. Haig’s notions were soon disowned by his medical brethren, but the public’s fear of uric acid carried into the 1920s and brought greater popular attention to bear on vegetarianism.
It was not necessarily approving attention, for the uric-acid-free diet Haig recommended was a highly restrictive system of eating. It required, after all, the elimination of every food containing either uric acid or purines that could be metabolized into uric acid. That rule eliminated not only all meat but many vegetables as well—beans, peas, asparagus, mushrooms, and whole-grain cereal products. Haig was thus left with milk, cheese, some vegetables, fruit, nuts, and—a unique position for a food reformer—white bread. Additional blandness was imposed by the prohibition of coffee and tea on the grounds that they contained methyl xanthines (it was later determined that caffeine and similar compounds are not metabolized into uric acid). And any rejoicing that at least alcoholic beverages were free of uric acid-producing substances was quickly squelched by Haig’s assurance that his diet removed any need for stimulation and thus destroyed the taste for strong drink (Haig 1892).
The physical advantage of Haig’s diet was demonstrated by the extraordinary success of several athletes who adopted it. Indeed, as early-twentieth-century society became captivated by competitive sports, vegetarians of every persuasion turned to athletic conquest for practical proof of the nutritional superiority of their regimen. As a result, a remarkable record of vegetarian victories in all sports was compiled in the 1890s and early 1900s, from the cycling records established by England’s aptly named James Parsley to the championships won by the tug-of-war team of the unfortunately named West Ham Vegetarian Society. (Among the flesh-abstaining champions was Haig’s son Kenneth, who won prizes as an Oxford rower but eventually was removed from his boat for fear that “his diet would demoralize … the rest of the crew.”) Carnivorus competitors refused to acknowledge the vegetarians’ athleticism, however, crediting their triumphs not to diet but to the dedication and competitiveness bred by fanaticism (Whorton 1981).
The “Newer Nutrition”
If full-fledged vegetarianism was still being taken lightly, the early twentieth century did foster a new respect for the nutritional value of vegetables; though few accepted vegetable foods as wholly sufficient for a healthful diet, all did come to see the consumption of vegetables as necessary to health. The critical development was the growth of understanding of vitamins over the first two decades of the century, accompanied by the realization that vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables were badly neglected at most tables. The most prominent representative of the so-called newer nutrition, vitamin discoverer Elmer McCollum, estimated in 1923 that “at least 90 per cent” of the food eaten by most American families was restricted to the old standards of white bread and butter, meat, potatoes, sugar, and coffee. His call for nationwide dietary reform aimed at educating and converting the public to replace much of the traditional diet with what he called the “protective foods.”
The resultant dietary education campaign made the 1920s as truly the decade of newer nutrition as of bathtub gin and jazz. Food educators bombarded the public through lectures, newspapers, magazines, textbooks, and comic strips and were gratified to see the national consumption of fruits and vegetables increase markedly. To note one of the more extraordinary examples, between 1925 and 1927, the spinach intake of schoolchildren in Fargo, North Dakota, grew tenfold (Whorton 1989).
Public consciousness of the nutritional virtues of plant foods was not limited to vitamin awareness. Another dominant health theme of the 1920s was the lack of bulk in modern society’s diet of refined and processed foods. Bulk foods were needed, of course, to prevent constipation, and ultimately autointoxication, still an unsettling threat in the public mind. The Kelloggs, Charles W. Post, and other manufacturers of bran-containing breakfast cereals fostered popular anxiety over torpid intestines with grossly exaggerated advertising warnings, giving the 1920s as pronounced a fiber consciousness as any more recent decade. But there was also the disinterested promotion of a higher-fiber diet by altruistic health reformers, some of them physicians and scientists.
At the head of this group was Britain’s archenemy of autointoxication, the renowned surgeon Sir William Arbuthnot Lane. Convinced that the upright posture and soft lifestyle of civilized people weakened the colon and produced “chronic intestinal stasis,” Lane surgically removed the colons of hundreds of patients during the 1910s in order to save them from autointoxication. The risks of surgery, as well as criticism from his professional colleagues, forced Lane to stop doing colectomies in the 1920s. But he remained convinced that constipation was the fundamental disease of civilization and was responsible for a host of illnesses, including colon cancer and other neoplasms. Consequently, in 1926, he organized the New Health Society in London and dedicated the last 17 years of his life to lecturing and writing on the dangers of intestinal stasis. Through Lane, the New Health Society, and the magazine New Health, British and American consumers were repeatedly harangued about the importance of fruits and vegetables for maintaining bowel regularity and preventing more serious diseases (Whorton 1991).
Vegetarianism and Health
Frequently included in Lane’s presentations were anecdotal reports of the relative freedom from autointoxication diseases enjoyed by the vegetarian populations of less-developed nations. But it was not until the late 1940s, after Lane had died and autointoxication had disappeared from orthodox medical theory, that epidemiological studies of so-called developing-world cultures began to verify Lane’s anecdotes by demonstrating statistical correlations between a high intake of dietary fiber and low incidences of hemorrhoids, gallstones, colon cancer, and various other “Western diseases” (Trowell 1981). Although some of the specific conclusions associated with the dietary fiber hypothesis have sparked debate, not to say controversy, among nutritionists and other health scientists, fiber has been officially recognized as an essential dietary component, and the general public has clearly been impressed with the health benefits of a diet high in unrefined vegetable foods.
Highly publicized studies linking cholesterol and saturated fats with cardiovascular disease have similarly conditioned society to associate vegetarianism with health and have motivated physicians and nutritionists to study heart disease and longevity in vegetarian groups such as Seventh-Day Adventists and Trappist monks. Those studies, conducted from the 1950s onward and too numerous to cite specifically, have largely confirmed what early-nineteenth-century vegetarians initially proposed, that a vegetable diet not only is capable of sustaining health but may actually improve it as well (Hardinge and Crooks 1963; Amato and Partridge 1989: 10-15).
Vegetarianism and Ethics
Running parallel with the twentieth-century growth of medical support for vegetarianism has been the expansion of the diet’s moral rationale. Until recently, this argument has been aimed almost exclusively at the pain inflicted on animals at the time of slaughter and the injustice of depriving them of life. Some attention has also been directed to the discomforts endured by livestock being driven or transported to market; this issue was introduced into deliberations in the mid-nineteenth century, as animals began to be shipped in crowded boxcars and ship holds. Although both types of objections continue, discussion has widened since the middle of the twentieth century to take in the treatment of meat animals throughout their lives.
The transformation of farming into agribusiness, including the adoption of economies of scale in stock raising, fostered a system of more intensive rearing methods—”factory farming”—that confined animals in unnatural environments from birth. Ruth Harrison’s 1964 Animal Machines first directed public attention to the raising of chickens in overcrowded coops and the packing of pigs into “Bacon Bin” fattening houses. Photographs of veal calves penned in narrow wooden cages all the days of their short lives soon became a common feature in vegetarian appeals (outdone in emotional impact only by the pictures of bludgeoned baby seals used in anti-fur advertisements).The maintenance of hens under similar conditions has encouraged lacto-ovo vegetarians to give up eggs; some have abandoned milk products as well in protest of the dairy industry’s practice of separating calves from their mothers soon after birth (and the subsequent transformation of those calves into veal).Thus, the ranks of vegans have grown considerably in the later twentieth century (vegans are sometimes referred to as “pure” vegetarians, but there is some question about the applicability of the term, since the word “vegetarian” was minted to refer to a diet that includes eggs and milk). Even meat eaters have been affected by the critique of factory farming, a sizable number now selecting “free range” animal products whenever they are available.
The Animal Rights Movement
Bentham’s proposal that slaughtering an animal for food saves it from a more painful and protracted death in the wild has lost its cogency in the age of the factory farm; now an animal’s entire existence might be seen as one long death. The morality of imposing such an existence on any creature has been raised to a higher level of discussion, moreover, by the animal rights movement of the last quarter century. Peter Singer’s 1975 work, Animal Liberation, the chief catalyst of the movement, is a work in which the heavily sentimental tone of traditional vegetarian moralism is set aside in favor of a rigidly philosophical analysis that recognizes animals as sentient beings, capable of experiencing pain and pleasure, and concludes that they should, therefore, be accorded the same respect as humans in areas where their interests are affected. Various violations of those interests are attacked by Singer (and they are much the same as the ones assailed by Salt nearly a century before)—for example, the use of animals in experimental research and the raising of animals for fur.
Because of the sheer numbers involved, however, the worst example of “speciesism”—the practice of moral discrimination purely on the basis of biological species—is the raising and killing of animals for food: “the most extensive exploitation of other species that has ever existed” (Singer 1975: 92; Regan 1975). The most significant element in such exploitation, however, is regarded not as the unnatural conditions of life imposed upon livestock or even their physical suffering. Fundamental to the animals’ rights analysis is the affirmation of a right to life for every creature. Thus, even if the animal is allowed a free-range existence and is slaughtered painlessly, the simple act of killing it for food constitutes an unjustifiable moral offense.
The arguments of Singer, Tom Regan, and other advocates of equal moral consideration for animals have elicited a serious response from the philosophy community. Over the past two decades, professional journals and conferences have given an extraordinary amount of attention to the issue of animal rights and its practical applications, including vegetarianism. To be sure, much of the reaction among philosophers has been critical. The Singer analysis has been faulted on grounds of logic and even attacked as a trivialization of civil rights, women’s rights, and other movements promoting more moral treatment of fellow human beings (Francis and Norman 1978).
Yet a good bit of the discussion has supported the animal rights arguments, endorsing both the abstract proposition of an animal’s right to life and older sentiments such as an intuitive appreciation that eating animals with whom people sense a bond of kinship is wrong (Diamond 1978). Speciesism has acquired an odious taint as well from the human exploitation of wild animals that has pushed many species to the brink of extinction, and by studies of communication in other mammals that have strengthened our feeling of relation to the rest of the animal kingdom.
Vegetarianism and the Environment
Not only have the moral and medical defenses of a vegetable diet grown stronger individually over the twentieth century, they have been buttressed in recent decades by environmental arguments. This is not an entirely new approach—eighteenth- and nineteenth-century vegetarians occasionally pointed out that less land would be needed for agriculture if people were fed on grain rather than meat—and it is a frequently cited truism in vegetarian literature today that 16 pounds of grain are required to produce 1 pound of meat. But with the twentieth century’s rapid increase of human population, the ceaseless conversion of arable land into housing developments and shopping malls, and the dramatic expansion of industry and the spread of industrial pollution, the degradation of the environment has become an object of grave scientific and public concern. As attention has been focused ever more sharply on the multitudinous threats to the fragile environment of our shrinking globe, a flesh diet has been recognized as a significant contributor to environmental decline.
The ecology of meat eating was first explored thoroughly by Frances Moore Lappé, whose 1971 best-seller Diet for a Small Planet examined livestock farming’s toll on the land, water, and air. Since Lappé, it has become commonplace for vegetarian literature to detail the soil erosion associated with the cultivation of livestock food crops; the excessive demands on water supplies to irrigate those crops; the pollution of waterways by field and feedlot runoff; the large amounts of fossil fuel energy expended in raising meat animals; even the contribution to global warming made by the methane released in cattle flatulence. Lately, the destruction of the tropical rain forest to provide more grazing land for beef cattle has been singled out as flesh diet’s greatest threat to the viability of “spaceship earth.” And in the end, ecology has returned to ethics. In the twentieth-anniversary edition of Diet for a Small Planet (1991), Lappé concentrated her criticisms on the immorality of growing grain for the fattening of cattle while millions of people worldwide starve.
A final characteristic of contemporary vegetarianism is its accomplishment of a joining of East and West. The Western counterculture’s fascination with Asian religious traditions has been an important contributor to the growth of vegetarianism over the past quarter century, with vegetarian religious sects such as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness now widely distributed through North America and Europe. Voluntary vegetarianism remains the practice of a small minority of the world’s population, of course; the number of practitioners, nevertheless, has risen to a historic high due to the combination of spiritual, ethical, medical, and environmental preoccupations resident in the mentality of the late twentieth century. In the United States, there are now approximately 9 million people identifying themselves as vegetarians, whereas another 40 million claim to have decreased their flesh food intake for reasons of health, morals, or ecological concern (Amato and Partridge 1989).