Mary Gove Nichols: Uncommonly Victorian & Veg
by Karen Iacobbo
(this article first appeared in the VivaVine, from vivavegie.org, March/April, 2000)
Mary Gove Nichols was a leading crusader for vegetarianism during the mid 19th century. She was a disciple of Sylvester Graham - perhaps the foremost vegetarian advocate of the century - and as a "Grahamite" her major form of activism was to teach physiology and anatomy to Americans.
To this end, Gove, who was a physician and proprietor of a water cure establishment (a non drug, "nature cure" facility), presented a series of lectures to female-only audiences eager to learn about the human body and how it functions. At the time, women were not supposed to lecture to audiences including males, but Gove managed to reach them as well through her published lectures, her magazine, and other works. Gove was also a novelist, acknowledged by no less a literary figure than Edgar Allan Poe, whose dying young wife Gove attempted to save from a fatal case of consumption (tuberculosis).
Gove couldn't save Poe's beloved cousin/wife, but she did help many people regain good health. Women (and men) were interested in what Gove had to teach, because they wanted to take control of their health and the health of their families instead of relying on the often treacherous, sometimes fatal drug medicine prevalent throughout the century.
Nichols and her lectures were popular. History records that at one lecture, the audience numbered as many as 2,000 - and that lecture was delivered in a small city. Vegetarianism was an integral component of Gove's teachings. Like her mentor Graham, Gove explained that God did not design the human body for flesh eating but to eat of the foods of the vegetable kingdom.
Gove, like Graham, was not typical of today's vegetarian advocate. It's doubtful that she would have approved of many vegetarian convenience foods, although she probably would have liked those low in fat and high in fiber. One's diet had to be heavy on whole grains, vegetables, and fruits - devoid of coffee, tea, condiments, and grease as well as meat - to pass inspection by her. Gove and other vegetarian crusaders contended that in some cases a diet that included flesh foods might be more wholesome than one that was vegetarian but loaded with grease and pastries. This was a concession evidently born out of compromise, which all but the staunchest vegetarian activists (those motivated primarily by religion or animal rights) seem to have made. Most likely they made this concession because they lived in a virulently meat-hungry and vegetarian-suspicious time that lacked hard scientific evidence proving the benefits of rejecting meat.
Besides the "vegetable diet," Gove and other "physiologists" called for a long list of daily practices, from bathing and exercise to adequate rest and cheerful attitude, as the prescription for health. If that advice seems familiar, the next time it is mentioned remember Gove, who like Graham, journeyed from city to city preaching physiology and a vegetable diet. Over time, many of the ideas of the American veg pioneers - derived from observation, the Bible, and natural history - have been scientifically verified and adopted by mainstream medicine. Until now, Graham, Gove, and company have rarely received credit for their attempts to aid ailing America. When they have been recognized, they and their groundbreaking work have usually been portrayed more as caricatures than as people of strong character, out to save the sick from unhealthful habits.