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

Philippe Hecquet M.D. 1661-1737
(text from the Appendix to the 1st edition, 1883)

This meritorious medical reformer, at first intended for the Church, happily (in the event) adopted the profession which he has so truly adorned, by his virtues, as well as by his enlightened labours. After a long and severe course of Anatomy and Physiology, in 1684 he was admitted as "Doctor" at Reims, and as Fellow (Agrégé) in the College of Physicians in his native town. He then returned to Paris to perfect himself in physiological science. Disgusted with the tricasseries which were excited against him by the members of his profession, he withdrew (in 1688) to Port-Royal-des-Champs, where he succeeded Hamon, who had just died, as physician. Here he practised the reforms he taught, while he devoted himself to the most laborious works of charity, giving all his time and attention to the poor for several leagues round, and travelling the distances, great as they were, on foot.

His health enfeebled by excessive labour in this way, he was induced to retire from his post at Port-Royal, and he went back to the capital where, having gone through the necessary formalities he was regularly enrolled as Doctor of Paris University, receiving the official hat after an examination of "rare success" (1697).

Soon after wards the Faculty named him Docteur-Régent, and appointed him to the post of Professor of Materia Medica. "Hecquet had soon numerous and illustrious patients , and his services were eagerly sought for, particularly in religious communities and in hospitals. He attached himself to that of Charity." In 1712 he was named Dean of the Faculty. In the midst of so much work, he found time to publish several medical books.

"He exercised his art with a noble disinterestedness. The poor were his favourite patients. He presented himself at the houses of the rich only when absolutely obliged, or when courtesy required it. He had much studied his art, and contributed with all his power, to advance it, as well by his writings as by his guidance and encouragement of young physicians. . . . He was in correspondence with the most famous savants and physicians of his age. His style in Latin is correct and does not want eloquence; in French he is more negligent, and a little unpolished. He was animated (vif) in debate, and strongly attached to his opinions; but he sought Truth in good faith."

Amongst his numerous works are :-

De l'Indécence aux Hommes d'Accoucher les Femmes, et de l'Obligation de Celles-ci de nourrir leurs enfants. (On the Indecency of Male Physicians Attending to Women in Child-Birth) 1708. Traité des Dispenses du Carême, 1709 - his most celebrated book. De la Digestion et des Maladies de l'Estomac, 1712. Novus Medicinœ Conspectus cum Appendice De Peste, 1722. "He there combats the various systems upon the origin of diseases, which he attributes to the disorders which supervene, in accordance with the laws which direct the movement of the blood:" the Plague, upon which he writes, was desolating the south of France at that time. Also, at this period, various brochures upon the Small-Pox.

La Médecine, la Chirurgie, et la Pharmacie des Pauvres (1740-2), his most popular book - La Brigandage de la Médecine (1755), which he supplemented with Brigandage de la Chirurgie, et de la Pharmacie - will sufficiently mark his attitude towards the orthodox Schools of Medicine of his day. Le Naturalisme des Convulsion dans les Maladies (1755), with several other books upon the same subject. The history of the Convulsionnaires occupies a curious episode in the religious history of the period, as it has occupied, and, in some measure still, in fact, occupies the attention of physiologists and psychologists of our own age. Hecquet, with the physiologists of the present time, attributes the phenomena to physical and natural causes. La Médecine Naturelle : "in this work the author alleges that it is not in the blood only that is to be sought the causes of maladies, but also in the nervous fluid." (1)

The books in which he treats of reform in Dietetics are the Traité des Dispenses and La Médecine des Pauvres.

However dietetically heterodox and heretical, the author of Treatise on Dispensations was of unsuspected ecclesiastical as well as theological orthodox; yet he takes occasion, at the outset of his book, to reproach his Church with its indifferentism towards so essentially important a matter as Dietetics - scientific or moral :-

"It will, perhaps, be found that much theology enters into this undertaking. We acknowledge it. One might even expect that some zealous ecclesiastic or other would have done himself the credit of sustaining so beautiful a cause (que quelque acclesiastique zélé se seroit fait gloire se soutenir une si belle cause). It might be hoped, especially in an age like ours, when physical science is in honour and for the benefit of everyone, and in which Medicine has become the property of every condition. . . . It ought then to have been the duty of so many Abbés, Monks and Religious Orders, who invest themselves with the titles of physicians - who receive their pay, who fill their employments - to advocate this part of ecclesiastical discipline [abstinence]. But, instead of doing so, though they undertake the care of the body, they, in fact, apply themselves solely to the healing of maladies. . . . One can see enough of it, nevertheless, to be convinced that the public has gained less from their secrets than they themselves, while their patients die more than ever under their hands. . . .

In Chap. VI. Que les Fruits, les Grains, les Legumes sont les Alimen les plus Naturels à l'Homme, after appealing to Gen. i. and "the Garden of Eden," Hecquet proceeds to insist that our foods should be analogous and consistent with the juices which maintain our life; and these are Fruits, Grains, Seeds, and Roots. But prejudice, of long standing, opposes itself to this truth. The false ideas attached to certain traditional terms have warped the minds of the majority of the world, and they have succeeded in persuading themselves that it is upon stimulating foods that depend the strength and health of men. From thence has come the love of wine, of spiritous liquors, and of gross meats. The ambiguity (équivoce) comes from confounding the idea of Remedy with that of food.

"Here the greater part of the world take alarm. 'How.' they say, 'can we be supported on Grains, which furnish but dry meal, fitter to cloy than to nourish; on Fruits, which are but condensed water; with vegetables, which are fit but for manure (fumier)?' But this meal, well prepared, forms Bread, the strongest of all aliments, this consensed water is the same that has caused the Trees to attain so great bulk, this fumier becomes such only because they prepare vegetables badly, and eat of them to excess. Besides, how can men affect to fear failure in strength, in eating what nourishes even the most robust animals, who would become even formidable to us, if only they knew their own strength."

In Chap. VII., Que l'Usage de la Viande n'est pas le plus naturel à l'Homme, ni absolument Nécessaire, he remarks :-

"It is incredible how much Prejudice has been allowed to operate in favour of [flesh] meat, while so many facts are opposed to the pretended necessity of its use."

Having entered into the physiological argument, now so well-worn, among other reasons he adduces the fact that "the soundest part of the world, or the most enlightened, have believed in the obligation to abstain from flesh," and "the very nature of flesh, which is digested with difficulty, and which furnishes the worst juices."

Nature being uniform in her method of procedure, is anything else necessary to determine whether Man is intended to live upon flesh-meats than to compare the organs which have to prepare them for his nourishment, with those of animals whom Nature manifestly has destined for carnage? And herein it may be clearly recognised, since men have neither fangs not talons to tear flesh, that it is very far from being the food most natural to them.

Hecquet devotes several chapters to a description of various Fruits and Herbs, and also of various kinds of Fish, which he holds to be much less objectionable and more innocent food than flesh. Comparing the two diets, we must acknowledge :-

"It causes our nature to revolt, and excites horror to eat raw flesh, and as it is presented to us naturally; and it becomes supportable for us to the taste and to the sight only after long preparation of cooking, which derives it of what is inhuman and disgusting in its original state; and, often, it is only after many various preparations and strange seasonings that it can become agreeable or sanitarily good. It is not so with other meats: the majority, as they come from the hand of Nature, without cookery and without art, are found proper to nourish, and are pleasant to the taste - plain proof that they are intended by Nature to maintain our health. Fruits are of such property that, when well-chosen and quite ripe, they excite the appetite by their own virtue, and might become, without preparation, sufficing. . . . If Vegetables or Fish have need of fire to accommodate them to our nature, the fire appears to be used less to correct these sorts of foods than to penetrate them, to make them soft and tender, and to develop what in them is most proper and suitable for health. . . . In fine, it is clear that vegetables and fish have need of less, and less strange and récherché, condiments - all sensible marks that these aliments are the most natural and suited to man." (2)

Hecquet's Traité des Dispenses received the formal approval and commendation of several "doctors regent" of the Faculty of Medicine of the Paris University, which testimonies are prefixed to the second edition of 1710. With his English contemporary, Dr. Cheyne, and other medical reformers, however, he experienced much insult and ridicule from anonymous professional critics.

 

Footnotes

    1. See Biog. Universelle, Art. Philippe Hecquet
    2. Traité des Dispenses &c. Par Philippe Hecquet, M.D., Paris. Ed. 1700

 

Howard Williams, The Ethics of Diet - index