Those Healthy Yankees (Part 1): Graham and Alcott


This is part 1 of a two-part piece on the early 19th Century Yankee contribution to healthy lifestyles. The parallels with today are most interesting. The material comes from a chapter draft for a projected volume 2 of The Yankee Road.


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

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

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

Neither of these answers was satisfactory, but they were based upon medical treatises that dated in some cases back to Roman times. As well, the attempts by medical people to treat them were equally bad in many cases, consisting of ‘bleeding’ the patient or giving doses of calomel (mercury chloride). By and large, the training and reputation of medical personnel was low, especially on the frontier, where almost all educational standards were low, at least at first. Outside the cities, people were left largely to their own devices in preventing and dealing with disease.

Some Americans began to fix on the notion that disease could be prevented, if only people were to live proper lives, consume food in a moderate fashion, drink only pure water and keep their physiques in proper order. This whole package came wrapped in a popular religious attitude called Arminianism, positing that God made the world good and that it was the duty of everyone to pursue salvation in both a moral sense, but also in a physical one. It was not a coincidence that moral and physical virtues were seen as being tied together.

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

Graham looked for some validation for his idea that food must be consumed in a spirit of tempered abstinence. He borrowed some ideas from France about the body as a ‘chemical machine’ and came up with the idea that the stimulation of the digestive system was at the root of many human health problems. These could be prevented by a calm lifestyle, which included only eating foods that were not stimulating and assisted digestion. He went on to apply his temperance argument to sexual relations and emotional control as well.

Graham was fixed on the idea that Christian theology was congruent with the laws of nature. By the time the cholera epidemic hit New York City, he pointed out in lectures there that its symptoms of gastrointestinal irritation pointed to people eating wrongly as well as misbehaving in other parts of their lives. As was discovered a couple of decades later, one of the prime causes for the spread of cholera was well water infected with the cholera bacillus. Graham’s advocacy of drinking water rather than alcohol, which would have killed the germs, was unfortunate.

Today, his name lives on in the ‘graham cracker’, a kids’ staple for many generations, and still a favorite of mine. Graham was less interested in the graham cracker, but instead became a proponent of the return to a rough type of bread that had been replaced in the cities by white bread. ‘Well-made bread’…must contain…’all the natural properties of wheat’, he said. He published a recipe for ‘graham bread’ in the 1829 New Hydropathic Cookbook. He felt that other foods should not be altered much from their natural condition either, which led to a prohibition on meat consumption.

In 1835, Graham moved to Boston, where the temperance movement and the antislavery movement were joined with a growing food-health movement. Interest there had been stimulated by the advocacy of similar ideas by William Andrus Alcott, the brother of Bronson Alcott, who was a transcendentalist leader and the father of writer Louisa May Alcott. There was some rivalry between Graham and Alcott, but both suffered from active opposition to their ideas by grocers and butchers in the city. Graham was known to be vain, obtuse and obsessive, so attacks were not a surprise to him, but a butchers’ riot was too much. Shaken, he moved from Boston to Northampton MA and died there in 1851 at the age of 57. His relatively young age at death shocked many of his followers and caused some to stray from Grahamism.

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

Alcott had been a teacher for a couple of years before going to Yale and his experience led to the idea that children should be taught basic nutrition and physiology as part of the school curriculum. We get ‘phys-ed’ classes from him. His ideas about the scope of what should be taught went beyond Graham’s. Health reform was a Christian redemption project enabling everyone to live the good life and a good afterlife. Ignorance should be dispelled so poor health could be traced to poor nutrition. As part of his educational mission, he became involved in the formation of the American Physiological Society in 1837.

Alcott, in his Presidential Address to the Society, was blunt that the best health care focused on prevention rather than cure, something that still is often ignored. Alcott waxed enthusiastically: ‘In the present blaze of physiological light, we can, in ways and processes almost innumerable, manufacture human health to an extent not formerly dreamed of.’ As president of the Society, Alcott helped to organize the first health food store, which stocked Graham bread, fresh fruits and vegetables.

In some ways, the emphasis on bland and natural foods was one facet of a larger issue addressed by both Graham and Alcott. This was the harmful effect of ‘stimulation’, which could be seen in the consumption of meat, which appealed to the animal nature of humans, as well as the use of peppers and spices, that stirred the passions, and then, further on, the satisfaction of sexual urges, which created tensions, nervousness and orgasms, all of which contributed to a debilitated and therefore illness-prone constitution. Alcott, especially, focused on the effects of bad personal hygiene on the vitality of children. Since genetic heredity, along with germ theory, was a concept still in the future, children’s illnesses and death were traced to the poor living conditions that the parents tolerated and this resulted in their passing along increasingly weaker intellects and constitutions. On a wider scale, this approach had the advantage at the time of being a semi-scientific way of explaining why some races were more active and vital than others.

We’ll see some other developments in the 1840s and 1850s in Part 2.

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