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The Ethics of Diet - A Catena
by Howard Williams M.A., 1883

George Cheyne M.D. 1671-1743
(text from the 1st edition, 1883 )

One of the most esteemed of English physicians, and one of the first medical authorities in this country who expressly wrote in advocacy of the reformed diet, descended from an old Scottish family. He studied medicine at Edinburgh - then and still a principal school of medicine and surgery - where he was a pupil of Dr. Pitcairn. At about the age of thirty he removed to London, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and took his M.D., degree, commencing practice in the metropolis.

The manner of life of a medical practitioner in the first half of the last century differed considerably from the present fashion. Not only personal inclination, but even professional interest, usually led him to frequent taverns and to indulge in all the excesses of "good living;" for in such boon companionship he most easily laid the foundation of his practice. Cheyne's early habits of temperance this gave way to the double temptation, and soon this indulgence he contracted painful disorders which threatened his life. An enormous weight of flesh, intermittent fevers, shortness of breath, and lethargy combined to enfeeble and depress him.

His first appearance in literature was the publication of his New Theory of Fevers, written in defence and at the suggestion of his old master, Dr. Pitcairn, who was at war with his brethren on the nature of epidemics. The author, while in after life holding that it contained, though in crude form, some valuable matter, wisely allowed it to fall into oblivion. The Mechanical or Iatro-Mathematical Theory, as it was called, of which Cheyne was one of the earliest and most distinguished expounders, by which it was attempted to apply the laws of Mechanics to vital phenomena, had succeeded to the principles of the old Chemical School. On the Continent the new theory had the support of the eminent authority of Boerhave, Borelli, Sauvages, Hoffman, and others. The natural desire to discover some definite and simple formulœ of medical science lay at the root of this, as of many other hypotheses. Cheyne himself, it is right to observe, ridiculed the notion that all vital processes can be explained on mechanical principles.

In 1705 he published his Philosophical Principles of Natural Religion, a book which had some repute in its day, apparently, since it was in use in the Universities. Between this and his next essay in literature a long interval elapsed, during which he had to pay the penalty of his old habits in apoplectic giddiness, violent headaches, and depression of spirits. Happily, it became for him the turning-point in his life, and eventually rendered him so useful an instructor of his kind. He had now arrived at a considerable amount of reputation in the profession. He seems to have been naturally of agreeable manners and of an amiable disposition, as well as of lively wit which, improved by study and reading, made him highly popular; and amongst his scientific and professional friends he was in great esteem. He had now, however - not too soon - determined to abandon his bon-vivantism, and speedily "even those who had shared the best part of my profusions," he tells us, " who, in their necessities had been relieved by my false generosity, and in their disorders, been relieved by my care, did now entirely relinquish and abandon me." He retired into solitude in the country and, almost momentarily expecting the termination of his life, set himself to serious and earnest reflection on the follies and vices of ordinary living.

At this time it seems that, although he had reduced his food to the smallest possible amount, he had not altogether relinquished flesh-meat. He repaired to Bath for the waters and, by living in the most temperate way and by constant and regular exercise, he seemed to have regained his early health. At Bath he devoted himself to cases of nervous diseases which most nearly concerned his own state, and which were most abundant at that fashionable resort. About the year 1712, or in the forty-second year of his age, his health was fairly re-established, and he began to relax in the milk and vegetable regimen which he had previously adopted.

His next publication was An Essay on the Gout and Bath Waters (1720), which passed through seven editions in six years. In it he commends the vegetable diet, although not so radically as in his last writings. His relaxation of dietetic reform quickly brought back his former maladies, and he again suffered severely. During the next ten or twelve years he continued to increase in corpulency, until he at last reached the enormous weight of thirty-two stones, and he describes his condition at the time as intolerable. (1) In 1825 he left Bath for London, to consult his friend Dr. Arbuthnot, whose advice probably renewed and confirmed his old inclination for the rational mode of living. At all events, within two years, by a strict adherence to the milk and vegetable regimen his maladies finally disappeared; nor did he after wards suffer by any relapse into dietetic errors.

In the preceding year had appeared his first important and original work - his well know Essay of Health and a Long Life. In the preface he declares that it is published for the benefit of those weakly persons who :-

"are able and willing to abstain from everything hurtful, and to deny themselves anything their appetites craved, to conform to any rules for a tolerable degree of health, ease, and freedom of spirits. It is for these, and these only," he proceeds, "the following treatise is designed. The robust, the luxurious, the pot-companions, &c., have here no business ; their time is not yet come."

It is generally acknowledged to be one of the best books on the subject. Haller pronounced it to be "the best of all the works bearing upon the sedentary persons and invalids." It went through several editions in the space of two years, and in 1726 was enlarged by the author and translated by his friend and pupil John Robertson M.A. into Latin, and three or four editions were quickly exhausted in France and Germany. In this book, while reducing flesh-meat to a minimum, and insisting upon the necessity of abstinence from grosser food and of the use of vegetables only, at the morning and evening meals, he had not advanced as yet so far as to preach the truth in its entirety. He arrived at it only by slow and gradual conviction. Expiating on the follies and miseries of bon-vivantism, he proceeds to affirm that :-

"All those who have lived long, and without much pain, have lived abstemiously, poor and meagre. Cornaro prolonged his life, and preserved his senses, by almost starving in his latter days; and some others have done the like. They have, indeed, thereby, in some measure, weakened their natural strength, and qualified the fire and flux of their spirits, but they have preserved their senses, weakened their pains, prolonged their days, and procured themselves a gentle and quiet passage into another state. . . . All the rest will be insufficient without this [a frugal diet]; and this alone, without these [medicines &c.], will suffice to carry on life, as long as by its natural flame it was made to last, and will make the passage easy and calm, as a taper goes out for want of fuel."

While the Essay of Health added greatly to his reputation with all thinking people, it also exposed him (as was to be expected) to a storm of small wit, ridicule, and misinterpretation :-

"Some good-natured and ingenious retainers to the Profession," he tells us, "on the publication of my book on Long Life and Health, proclaimed everywhere that I was turned mere enthusiast, advised people to turn monks, to run into deserts, and to live on roots, herbs, and wild fruits! in fine, that I was, at bottom a mere leveller, and for destroying order, ranks, and property, everyone's but my own. But that sneer had its day, and vanished into smoke. Others swore that I had eaten my book, recanted my doctrine and system( as they were pleased to term it), as was returned again to the devil, the world, and the flesh. This joke I have also stood. I have been slain again and again, both in prose and in verse; but, I thank God, I am still alive and well."

His next publication was his English Malady: or, a Treatise of Nervous Diseases of all Kinds, which was also well received, going through four editions in two years. the incessant ridicule with which the gourmands had assailed his last work seems to have made him cautious in his next attempt to revolutionise dietetics; and he is careful to advertise the public that his milk and vegetable system was for those in weak health only. Denouncing the use of sauces and provocatives of unnatural appetite, "contrived not only to rouse a sickly stomach to receive the unnatural load, but to render a naturally good one incapable of knowing when it has enough," he asks, "Is it any wonder then that the diseases which proceed from idleness and fulness of meat should increase in proportion?" He is bold enough by this time to affirm that, for the cure of many diseases, an entire abstinence from flesh is indisputably necessary :-

"There are some cases wherein a vegetable and milk diet seems absolutely necessary, as in severe and habitual gouts, rheumatisms, cancerous, leprous, and scrofulous disorders; extreme nervous colics, epilepsies, violent hysteric fits, melancholy, consumptions, (and the like disorders, mentioned in the preface), and towards the last stages of all chronic distempers. In such distempers I have seldom seen such a diet fail of a good effect at last."

Six years later, in 1740, appeared his Essay on Regimen : together with Five Discourses Medical Moral and Philosophical, &c. Since his last exhortation to the world Cheyne had evidently convinced himself, by long experience as well as reflection, of the great superiority of the vegetable diet for all - sound as well as sick; and, accordingly, he speaks in strong and clear language of the importance of a general reform. As a consequence of this plain speaking, his new book met with a comparatively cold reception. Perhaps, too, its mathematical and somewhat abstruse tone may have affected its popularity. As regards its moral tone it was a new revelation, doubtless, for the vast majority of his readers. He boldly asserts :-

"The question I design to treat of here is, whether animal or vegetable food was, in the original design of the Creator, intended for the food of animals, and particularly of the human race. And I am almost convinced it never was intended, but only permitted as a curse or punishment . . . At what time animal [flesh] food came first in use is not certainly known. He was a bold man who made the first experiment.
. . . . . . . Illi robur at œs triplex
. . . . .Circa pectus erat.

To see the convulsions, agonies, and tortures of a poor fellow-creature, whom they cannot restore nor recompense, dying to gratify luxury, and tickle callous and rank organs, must require a rocky heart, and a great degree of cruelty and ferocity. I cannot find any difference, on the foot of natural reason and equity only, between feeding on human flesh and feeding on brute animal flesh, except custom and example.

I believe some [more] rational creatures would suffer less in being fairly butchered than a strong Ox or red Deer; and, in natural morality and justice, the degrees of pain here make the essential difference, for as to other differences, they are relative only, and can be of no influence with an infinitely perfect Being. Did we not use and example weaken this lesson, and make the difference, reason alone could never do it." - Essay on Regimen, &c. 8vo. 1740. Pages 54 and 70.

Noble and courageous words! Courageous as coming from an eminent member of a profession - which almost rivals the legal or even the clerical, in opposition to all change in the established order of things. In Dr. Cheyne's day such interested or bigoted opposition was even stronger than in the present time. From the period of the final establishment of his health, about 1728, little is known of his life excepting through his writings. Almost all we know is, that he continued some fifteen years to practice in London and in Bath with distinguished reputation and success. He had married a daughter of Dr. Middleton of Bristol by whom he had several children. His only son was born in 1712. Amongst his intimate friends was the celebrated Dr. Arbuthnot, a Scotchman like himself, and we find him meeting Sir Hans Sloane and Dr. Mead at the bedside of his friend and relative Bishop Burnet. Both Dr. Arbuthnot and Sir Hans Sloane, we may remark in passing, have given evidence in favour of the purer living. His own diet he thus describes in his Author's Case, written towards the end of his life :-

"My regimen, at present, is milk, with tea, coffee, bread and butter, mild cheese, salads, fruits, and seeds of all kinds, with tender roots (as potatoes, turnips, carrots) and, in short, everything that has not life, dressed, or not, as I like it, in which there is as much, or a greater variety than in animal foods, so that the stomach need never be cloyed. I drink no wine, nor any fermented liquors, and am rarely dry, most of my food being liquid, moist, or juicy. (2) Only after dinner I drink either coffee or green tea, but seldom both in the same day, and sometimes a glass of soft small cider. The thinner my diet is, the easier, more cheerful and lightsome I find myself; my sleep is also the sounder, though perhaps somewhat shorter than formerly under my full animal diet ; but then I am more alive than ever I was. As soon as I awake and get up. I rise commonly at six, and go to bed at ten." (2)

As for the effect of this regimen, he tells us that "since that time [his last lapse] I thank God I have gone on in one constant tenor of diet, and enjoy good health as, at my time of life (being now sixty), I or any man can reasonably expect." When we remember the complicity of maladies of which he had been the victim during his adhesion to the orthodox mode of living, such experience is sufficiently significant. Some ten years later he records his experiences as follow :-

"It is now about sixteen years since, for the last time, I entered upon a milk and vegetable diet. At the beginning of this period, this light food I took as my appetite directed, without any measures, and found myself easy under it. After some time, I found it became necessary to lessen this quantity, and I have latterly reduced it to one-half, at most, of what I at first seemed to bear; and if it should please God to spare me a few years longer, in order to preserve, in that case, that freedom and clearness which by his presence I now enjoy, I shall probably find myself obliged to deny myself one-half which my present daily sustenance, which precisely is three Winchester pints of new milk, and six ounces of biscuit, made without salt or yeast, baked in a quick oven." (3) - [Natural Method of Curing Diseases, &c., page 298; see also Preface to Essay on Regimen]

The last production of Dr. Cheyne was his "Natural Method of Curing the Diseases of the Body, and the Disorders of the Mind Depending on the Body. In three parts. Part I. - General Reflections on the Economy of Nature in Animal Life. Part II. - The Means and Methods and Cure of Acute, Contagious, and Cephalic Disorders. Part III. - Reflections on the Nature and Cure of Particular Chronic Distempers. 8vo. Strahan, London, 1742." It is dedicated to the celebrated Lord Chesterfield, who records his grateful recognition of the benefits he had experienced from his methods. He writes: "I read with great pleasure your book, which your bookseller sent me according to your direction. The physical part is extremely good, and the metaphysical part may be so too, for what I know, and I believe it is, for as I look upon all metaphysics to be guess work of imagination, I know no imagination likelier to hit upon the right than yours, and I will take your guess against any other metaphysician's whatsoever. That part which is founded upon knowledge and experience I look upon as a work of public utility, and for which the present age and their posterity may be obliged to you, if they will be pleased to follow it." Lord Chesterfield, it will be seen below, was one of those more refined minds whose better conscience revolted from, even if they had not the courage or self-control to renounce, the Slaughter-House.

The Natural Method its author considers as a kind of supplement to his last book, containing "the practical inferences, and the conclusions drawn from [its principles], in particular cases and diseases, confirmed by forty years experience and observation." It is most practical of all his works, and is full of valuable observations. Very just and useful is his rebuke of that sort of John-Bullism which affects to hold "good living" not only as harmless but even as a sort of merit :-

"How it may be in other countries and religions I will not say, but among us good Protestants, abstinence, temperance, and moderation (at least in eating), are so far from being thought a virtue, and their contrary a vice, that it would seem that not eating the fattest and most delicious, and to the top, were the only vice and disease known among us - against which our parents, relatives, friends, and physicians exclaim with great vehemence and zeal. And yet, if we consider the matter attentively we shall find there is no such danger in abstinence as we imagine, but, on the contrary, the greatest abstinence and moderation mature and its external laws will suffer us to go into and practise for any time, will neither endanger our health, nor weaken our just thinking, be it ever so unlimited or unrestrained. . . . And it is a wise providence that Lent time falls out at that season which, if kept according to its original intention, in seeds and vegetables well dressed and no in rich high-dressed fish, would go a great way to preserve the health of the people in general, as well as dispose them to seriousness and reflection - so true it is that 'godliness has the promise of this life, and of that which is to come,' and it is very observable that in all civil and established religious worships hitherto known among polished nations Lents, days of abstinence, seasons of fasting and bringing down the brutal part of the rational being, have had a large share, and been reckoned an indispensable part of their worship and duty, except among a wrong-headed part of our reformation, where it has been despised and ridiculed into total neglect. And yet it seems that not only natural and convenient for health, but strongly commended both in the Old and new testament, and might allow time and proper disposition for more serious and weighty purposes. And this 'Lent,' or times of abstinence is one reason of the cheerfulness or serenity of some Roman Catholic or Southern countries, which would be still ore healthy and long-lived were it not for their excessive use of aromatics and opiates, which are the worst kind of dry drams, and the cause of their unnatural and unbridled lechery and shortness of life."

Denouncing the general practice of the Profession of encouraging their patients in indulging vitiated habits and tastes, he reminds them :-

"That such physicians do not consider that they are accountable to the community, to their patients, to their conscience, and to their Maker, for every hour and moment they shorten and cut off their patients' lives by their immoral and murderous indulgence : and the patients do not duly ponder that suicide (which is in effect) is the most mortal and irremissible of all sins, and neither have sufficiently weighted the possibility that the patient, if not quickly cut off by both these preposterous means, may linger out miserably, and be twenty or thirty years a-drying, under these heart and wheel-breaking miseries thus exasperated; whereas, but the methods I propose, if they obtain not in time a perfect cure, yet they certainly lessen their pain, lengthen their days, and continue under the benign influence of 'the Sun of Righteousness, who has healing in His wings,' and, at worst, soften and lighten the anguish of their dissolution, as far as the nature of things will admit."

Not the least useful and instructive portions of his treatise are his references to the proper regimen for mental diseases and disordered brains, which, he reasonably infers, are best treated by the adoption of a light and pure dietary. He despairs, however, of the general recognition, or at least adoption, of so rational a method by the "faculty" or the public at large,

"Who do not consider that nine parts in ten of the whole mass of mankind are necessarily confined to this diet (of farinacea, fruits, &c. ) or pretty near to it, and yet live with the use of their senses, limbs, and faculties, without diseases or with but a few, and those from accidents or epidemical causes; and that there have been nations, and now are numbers of tribes, who voluntarily confine themselves to vegetables only, . . . . and that there are whole villages in this kingdom whose inhabitants scarce eat animal food or drink fermented liquors a dozen times year."

In regard to all nervous and brain diseases, he insists that the reformed diet would

"Greatly alleviate and render tolerable original distempers derived from diseased parents, and that it is absolutely necessary for the deep-thinking part of mankind, who would preserve their faculties ripe and pregnant to a green old age and to the last dregs of life; and that it is the true and real antidote and preservative from wrong-headedness, irregular and disorderly intellect and functions, from loss of the rational faculties, memory, and senses, as far as the ends of Providence and the condition of mortality will allow." - (Nat. Method, page 90.)

This benevolent and beneficent dietetic reformer, according to the testimony of an eye-witness, exemplified by his death the value of his principles - relinquishing his last breath easily and tranquilly, while his senses remained entire to the end. During his last illness he was attended by the famous David Hartley, noticed below. He was buried at Weston, near Bath. His character is sufficiently seen in his writings which, if they contain some metaphysical or other ideas which our reason cannot always endorse, in their practical teaching prove him to have been actuated by a true and earnest desire for the best interests of his fellow-men. One of the merits of Cheyne's writings is his discarding the common orthodox esoteric style of his profession, who seem jealously to exclude all but the "initiated" from their sacred mysteries. One of his biographers has remarked upon this point that "there is another peculiarity about most of Dr. Cheyne's writings which is worthy of notice. Although there are many passages that are quite unintelligible to the reader unless he possesses a considerable knowledge, not only of medicine but also of mathematics, yet there is no doubt but that the greater part of his works were intended for popular perusal, and in this undertaking he is one of the few medical writers who have been completely successful. His productions, which were much read and had an extensive influence in their day , procured him a considerable degree of reputation, not only with the public, but also with the members of his own profession. If they present to the reader no great discoveries (?) they possess the merit of putting more prominently forward some useful but neglected truths; and though now, probably, but little read, they contain much matter that is well worth studying, and have obtained for their author a respectable place in the history of medicinal literature." (4)

Our notice of the author of the Essay on Regimen, &c., would scarcely be complete without some reference to his friendship with two distinguished characters - John Wesley and Samuel Richardson (5) the author of Pamela. It was Dr. Cheyne that Wesley, as he tells us in his journals, was indebted for his conversion to those dietetic principles to which he attributes, in great measure, the invigoration of his naturally feeble constitution, and which enabled him to undergo an amount of fatigue and toil, both mentally and bodily, seldom or never surpassed. Of Cheyne's friendship with Richardson there are several memorials preserved in his familiar letters to that popular writer; and his free and naive criticisms of his novels are not a little amusing. The novelist, it seems, was one of his patients, and that he was not always a satisfactory one, under the abstemious regimen, appears occasionally from the remonstrances of his adviser.



    1. He was at one time so corpulent that he could not get in and out of his carriage in visiting his patients at Bath.
    2. One of the many excellences of the non-flesh dietary is this essential quality of fruits and vegetables, that they contain in themselves sufficient liquid to allow one to dispense with a large proportion of all extraneous drinks, and certainly with alcoholic kinds. Hence it is at once the easiest and the surest preventive of all excessive drinking. Much convincing testimony has been collected to this effect by the English and German Vegetarian Societies.
    3. It is neither necessary nor possible for everyone to practice so extreme abstemiousness; but it is instructive to compare it for a moment with the ordinary and prevalent indulgence in eating.
    4. A Life of George Cheyne, M.D., Parker and Churchill, 1843. See also Biog. Britannica.
    5. Dr. Samuel Johnson gave up wine by the advice of Cheyne, and drank tea with Mrs. Thrale and Boswell till he died, at 75.


Howard Williams, The Ethics of Diet - index