Food-Borne Diseases | 18th Century Medicine


    About the author

    Edward St. Germain.
    Edward St. Germain

    Edward A. St. Germain created in 1996. He was an avid historian with a keen interest in the Revolutionary War and American culture and society in the 18th century. On this website, he created and collated a huge collection of articles, images, and other media pertaining to the American Revolution. Edward was also a Vietnam veteran, and his investigative skills led to a career as a private detective in later life.


      Editor’s note
      The following is a chapter from the book “Domestic Medicine” written by Dr. William Buchanan in 1785. It provides a fascinating insight into medical knowledge of the time, including the often haphazard and sometimes dangerous techniques used to treat certain injuries and illnesses in the 1700s. We have not edited this book chapter, and as a result it may contain old English spellings of certain words.


      UNWHOLESOME food, and irregularities in diet, occasion many diseases. There is no doubt but the whole constitution of body may be changed by diet alone. The fluids may be thereby attenuated or condensed, rendered mild or acrimonious, coagulated or diluted, to almost any degree. Nor are its effects upon the solids less considerable. They may be braced or relaxed, have their sensibility, motions, &c. greatly increased or diminished, by different kinds of aliment. A very small attention to these things will be sufficient to shew, how much the preservation of health depends upon a proper regimen of the diet.

      NOR is an attention to diet necessary for the preservation of health only: It is likewise of importance in the cure of diseases. Every intention in the cure of many diseases, may be answered by diet alone. Its effects, indeed, are not always so quick as those of medicine, but they are generally more lasting: Besides, it is neither so disagreeable to the patient, nor so dangerous as medicine, and is always more easily obtained.

      OUR intention here is not to inquire minutely into the nature and properties of the various kinds of aliment in use among mankind; nor to shew their effects upon the different constitutions of the human body; but to mark some of the most pernicious errors which people are apt to fall into, with respect both to the quantity and qualities of their food, and to point out their influence upon health.

      IT is not indeed an easy matter to ascertain the exact quantity of food proper for every age, sex, and constitution: But a scrupulous nicety here is by no means necessary. The best rule is to avoid all extremes. Mankind were never intended to weigh and measure their food. Nature teaches every creature when it has enough; and the calls of thirst and hunger are sufficient to inform them when more is necessary.

      THOUGH moderation be the chief rule with regard to the quantity, yet the quality of food merits a farther consideration. There are many ways by which provisions may be rendered unwholesome. Bad seasons may either prevent the ripening of grain, or damage it afterwards. These, indeed, are acts of Providence, and we must submit to them; but surely no punishment can be too severe for those who suffer provisions to spoil by hoarding them, on purpose to raise the price, or who promote their own interest by adulterating the necessaries of life. The poor, indeed, are generally the first who suffer by unsound provisions; but the lives of the labouring poor are of great importance to the state: Besides, diseases occasioned by unwholesome food often prove infectious, by which means they reach people in every station. It is therefore the interest of all to take care that no spoilt provisions of any kind be exposed to sale.

      ANIMAL, as well as vegetable food, may be rendered unwholesome, by being kept too long. All animal substances have a constant tendency to putrefaction; and, when that has proceeded too far, they not only become offensive to the senses, but hurtful to health. Diseased animals, and such as die of themselves, ought never to be eat. It is a common practice, however, in some grasing countries, for servants and poor people to eat such animals as die of any disease, or are killed by accident. Poverty, indeed, may oblige people to do this; but they had better eat a smaller quantity of what is sound and wholesome: It would both afford a better nourishment, and be attended with less danger.

      THE injunctions given to the Jews, not to eat any creature which died of itself, seem to have a strict regard to health, and ought to be observed by Christians as well as Jews. Animals never die of themselves without some previous disease; but how a diseased animal should be wholesome food, is inconceivable: Even those which die by accident must be hurtful, as their blood is mixed with the flesh, and soon turns putrid.

      ANIMALS which feed grossly, as tame ducks, hogs, &c. are neither so easily digested, nor afford such wholesome nourishment as others. No animal can be wholesome which does not take sufficient exercise. Most of our stalled cattle are crammed with gross food, but not allowed exercise nor free air; by which means they indeed grow fat, but their humours, not being properly prepared or assimilated, remain crude, and occasion indigestions, gross humours, and oppression of the spirits, in those who feed upon them.

      ANIMALS are often rendered unwholesome by being over-heated. Excessive heat causes a fever, exalts the animal salts, and mixes the blood so intimately with the flesh, that it cannot be separated. For this reason, butchers should be severely punished who overdrive their cattle. No person would chuse to eat the flesh of an animal which had died in a high fever; yet that is the case with all over-drove cattle; and the fever is often raised even to the degree of madness.

      BUT this is not the only way by which butchers render meat unwholesome. The abominable custom of filling the cellular membrane of animals with air, in order to make them appear fat, is every day practised. This not only spoils the meat, and renders it unfit for keeping, but is such a dirty trick, that the very idea of it is sufficient to disgust a person of any delicacy at every thing which comes from the shambles. Who can bear the thought of eating meat which has been blown up with air from the lungs of a dirty fellow, perhaps labouring under the very worst of diseases?

      BUTCHERS have likewise a method of filling the cellular membranes of animals with blood. This makes the meat seem fatter, and likewise weigh more, but is notwithstanding a very pernicious custom, as it both renders the meat unwholesome and unfit for keeping. I seldom see a piece of meat from the shambles, where the blood is not diffused through the whole cellular texture. I shall not say that this is always the effect of design; but I am certain it is not the case with animals that are killed for domestic use, and properly blooded. Veal seems to be most frequentIy spoilt in this way. Perhaps that may in some measure be owing to the practice of carrying calves from a great distance to market, by which means their tender flesh is bruised, and many of their vessels burst.

      NO people in the world eat such quantities of animal food as the English, which is one reason why they are so generally tainted with the scurvy and its numerous train of consequences, indigestion, low spirits, hypochondriacism, &c. Animal food was surely designed for man, and with a proper mixture of vegetables it will be found the most wholesome; but, to gorge beef, mutton, pork, fish, and fowl, twice or thrice a day, is certainly too much. All who value health ought to be contented with making one meal of flesh in the twenty-four hours, and this ought to consist of one kind only.

      THE most obstinate scurvy has often been cured by a vegetable diet; nay, milk alone will frequently do more in that disease than any medicine. Hence it is evident, that if vegetables and milk were more used in diet, we should have less scurvy, and likewise fewer putrid and inflammatory fevers. Fresh vegetables, indeed, come to be daily more used in diet; this laudable practice we hope will continue to gain ground.

      OUR aliment ought neither to be too moist, nor too dry. Moist aliment relaxes the solids, and renders the body feeble. Thus we see females, who live much on tea and other watery diet, generally become weak, and unable to digest solid food: Hence proceed hysterics, and all their dreadful consequences. On the other hand, food that is too dry, renders the solids in a manner rigid, and the humours viscid, which disposes the body to inflammatory fevers, scurvies, and the like.

      MUCH has been said on the ill effects of tea in diet. They are, no doubt, numerous; but they proceed rather from the imprudent use of it, than from any bad qualities in the tea itself. Tea is now the universal breakfast in this part of the world; but the morning is surely the most improper time of the day for drinking it. Most delicate persons, who, by the bye, are the greatest tea-drinkers, cannot eat any thing in the morning. If such persons, after fasting ten or twelve hours, drink four or five cups of tea, without eating almost any bread, it must hurt them. Good tea, taken in moderate quantity, not too strong, nor too hot, nor drank upon an empty stomach, will seldom do harm; but if it be bad, which is often the case, or substituted in the room of solid food, it must have many ill effects.

      THE arts of cookery render many things unwholesome, which are not so in their own nature. By jumbling together a number of different ingredients, in order to make a poignant sauce, or rich soup, the composition proves almost a poison. All high-seasoning, pickles, &c. are only incentives to luxury, and never fail to hurt the stomach. It were well for mankind, if cookery, as an art, were entirely prohibited. Plain roasting or boiling is all that the stomach requires. These alone are sufficient for people in health, and the sick have still less need of a cook.

      THE liquid part of our aliment likewise claims our attention. Water is not only the basis of most liquors, but also composes a great part of our solid food. Good water must therefore be of the greatest importance in diet. The best water is that which is most pure, and free from any mixture of foreign bodies. Water takes up parts of most bodies with which it comes into contact; by this means it is often impregnated with metals or minerals of a hurtful or poisonous nature. Hence the inhabitants of some hilly countries have peculiar diseases, which in all probability proceed from the water. Thus the people who live near the Alps in Switzerland, and the inhabitants of the Peak of Derby in England, have large tumours or wens on their necks. This disease is generally imputed to the snow water; but there is more reason to believe it is owing to the minerals in the mountains through which the waters pass.

      WHEN water is impregnated with foreign bodies, it generally appears by its weight, colour, taste, smell, heat, or some other sensible quality. Our business therefore is to chuse such water, for common use, as is lightest, and without any particular colour, taste, or smell. In most places of Britain the inhabitants have it in their power to make choice of their water; and few things would contribute more to health than a due attention to this article. But mere indolence often induces people to make use of the water that is nearest to them, without considering its qualities,

      BEFORE water be brought into great towns, the strictest attention ought to be paid to its qualities, as many diseases may be occasioned or aggravated by bad water and when once it has been procured at a great expence, people are unwilling to give it up.

      THE common methods of rendering water clear by filtration, or soft, by exposing it to the sun and air, &c. are so generally known, that it is unnecessary to spend time in explaining them. We shall only, in general, advise all to avoid waters which stagnate long in small lakes, ponds, or the like, as such waters often become putrid, by the corruption of animal and vegetable bodies with which they abound. Even cattle frequently suffer by drinking, in dry seasons, water which has stood long in small reservoirs, without being supplied by springs, or freshened with showers. All wells ought to be kept clean, and to have a free communication with the air.

      AS fermented liquors, notwithstanding they have been exclaimed against by many writers, still continue to be the common drink of almost every person who can afford them; we shall rather endeavour to assist people in the choise of these liquors, than pretend to condemn what custom has so firmly established. It is not the moderate use of sound fermented liquors which hurts mankind: it is excess, and using such as are ill-prepared or vitiated.

      FERMENTED liquors, which are too strong, hurt digestion; and the body is so far from being strengthened by them, that it is weakened and relaxed. Many imagine, that hard labour could not be supported without drinking strong liquors: This is a very erroneous notion. Men who never taste strong liquors are not only able to endure more fatigue, but also live much longer, than those who use them daily. But, suppose strong liquors did enable a man to do more work, they must nevertheless waste the powers of life, and occasion premature old age. They keep up a constant fever, which exhausts the spirits, inflames the blood, and disposes the body to numberless diseases.

      BUT fermented liquors may be too weak as well as too strong: When that is the case, they must either be drank new, or they become sour and dead; when such liquors are drank new, the fermentation not being over, they generate air in the bowels, and occasion flatulencies; and, when kept till stale, they sour on the stomach, and hurt digestion. For this reason all malt-liquors, cyder, &c. ought to be of such strength as to keep till they be ripe, and then they should be used. When such liquors are kept too long, though they should not become, sour, yet they generally contract a hardness, which renders them unwholesome.

      ALL families, who can, ought to prepare their own liquors. Since preparing and vending of liquors became one of the most general branches of business, every method has been tried to adulterate them. The great object both to the makers and venders of liquor is, to render it intoxicating. But it is well known that this may be done by other ingredients than those which ought to be used for making it strong. It would be imprudent even to name those things which are daily made use of to render liquors heady. Suffice it to say, that the practice is very common, and that all the ingredients used for this purpose are of a narcotic or stupefactive nature. But, as all opiates are of a poisonous quality, it is easy to see what must be the consequence of their general use. Though they do not kill suddenly, yet they hurt the nerves, relax and weaken the stomach, and spoil the digestion.

      WERE fermented liquors faithfully prepared, kept to a proper age, and used in moderation, they would prove real blessings to mankind, But, while they are ill prepared, various ways adulterated, and taken to excess, they must have many pernicious effects.

      WE would recommend it to families, not only to prepare their own liquors, but likewise, their bread. Bread is so necessary a part of diet, that too much care cannot be bestowed in order to have it sound and wholesome. For this purpose, it is not only necessary that it be made of good grain, but likewise, properly prepared, and kept free from all unwholesome ingredients. This, however, we have reason to believe, is not always the case with bread prepared by those who make a trade of vending it. Their object is rather to please the eye, than to consult the health. The best bread is that which is neither too coarse nor too fine; well fermented and made of wheat flour, or rather of wheat and rye mixed together.

      TO specify the different kinds of aliment, to explain their nature and properties, and to point out their effects in different constitutions, I would far exceed the limits of our design. Instead of a detail of this kind, which would not be generally understood, and, of course, little attended to, we shall only mention the following easy rules with respect to the choice of aliment.

      PERSONS, whose solids are weak and relaxed, ought to avoid all viscid food, or such things as are hard of digestion. Their diet, however, ought to be nourishing; and they should take plenty of exercise in the open air.

      SUCH as abound with blood should be sparing in the use of every thing that is highly nourishing, as fat meat, rich wines, strong ale, and such like. Their food should consist mostly of bread and other vegetable substances; and their drink ought to be water, whey, or small beer.

      FAT people should not eat freely of oily nourishing diet. They ought frequently to use raddish, garlic, spices, or such things as are heating and promote perspiration and urine. Their drink should be water, coffee, tea, or the like; and they ought to take much exercise and little sleep.

      THOSE who are too lean must follow an opposite course.

      SUCH as are troubled with acidities, or whose food is apt to sour on the stomach, should live much on flesh-meats; and those who are afflicted wlith hot alkaline eructations, ought to use a diet consisting chiefly of acid vegetables.

      PEOPLE who are affected with the gout, low spirits, hypochondriac, or hysteric disorders, ought to avoid all flatulent food, every thing that is viscid, or hard of digestion, all salted or smoke-dried provisions, and whatever is austere, acid, or apt to sour on the stomach. Their food should be light, spare, cool, and of an opening nature.

      THE diet ought not only to be suited to the age and constitution but also to the manner of life: A sedentary or studious person should live more sparingly than one who labours hard without doors. Many kinds of food will nourish a peasant very well which would be almost indigestible to a citizen; and the latter will live upon a diet on which the former would starve.

      DIET ought not to be too uniform. The constant use of one kind of food might have some bad effects. Nature teaches us this, by the great variety of aliment which she has provided for man, and likewise by giving him an appetite for different kinds of food.

      THOSE who labour under any particular disease, ought to avoid such aliments as have a tendency to increase it: For example, a gouty person should not indulge in rich wines, strong soups, or gravies, and should avoid all acids. One who is troubled with the gravel ought to shun all austere and astringent aliments; and those who are scorbutic should be sparing in the use of salted provisions, &c.

      IN the first period of life, our food ought to be light, but nourishing, and frequently taken. Food that is solid, with a sufficient degree of tenacity, is most proper for the state of manhood. The diet suited to the last period of life, when nature is upon the decline, approaches nearly to that of the first. It should be lighter and more succulent than that of vigorous age and likewise more frequently taken.

      IT is not only necessary for health that our diet be wholesome, but also that it be taken at regular periods. Some imagine long fasting will attone for excess; but this instead of mending the matter generally makes it worse. When the stomach and intestines are over-distended with food, they lose their proper tone, and, by long fasting, they become weak, and inflated with wind. Thus, either gluttony or fasting destroys the powers of digestion.

      THE frequent repetition of aliment is not only necessary for repairing the continual waste of our bodies, but likewise to keep the humours sound and sweet. Our humours, even in the most healthy state, have a constant tendency to putrefaction, which can only be prevented by frequent supplies of fresh nourishment: When this is wanting too long, the putrefaction often proceeds so far, as to occasion very dangerous fevers. From hence we may learn the necessity of regular meals. No person can enjoy a good state of health, whose vessels are either frequently overcharged, or the humours long deprived of fresh supplies of chyle.

      LONG fasting is extremely hurtful to young people; it not only vitiates their humours, but prevents their growth. Nor is it less injurious to the aged. Most persons, in the decline of life, are afflicted with wind: This complain is not only increased, but even rendered dangerous, and often fatal, by long fasting. Old people, when their stomachs are empty, are frequently seized with giddiness, head-achs, and faintness. These complaints may generally be removed by a bit of bread and a glass of wine, or taking any other solid food; which plainly points out the method of preventing them.

      IT is more than probable, that many of the sudden deaths, which happen in the advanced periods of life, are occasioned by fasting too long, as it exhausts the spirits, and fills the bowels with wind; we would therefore advise people, in the decline of life, never to allow their stomachs to be too long empty. Many people take nothing but a few cups of tea and a bit of bread, from nine o’clock at night till two or three next afternoon. Such may be said to fast almost three-fourths of their time. This can hardly fail to ruin the appetite, vitiate the humours, and fill the bowels with wind; all which might be prevented by a solid breakfast.

      IT is a very common practice to eat a light breakfast and a heavy supper. This custom ought to be reversed. When people sup late their supper should be very light; but the breakfast ought always to be solid. If any one eats a light supper, goes soon to bed, and rises betimes in the morning, he will be sure sure to find an appetite for his breakfast, and he may freely indulge it.

      THE strong and healthy do not indeed suffer so much from fasting as the weak and delicate; but they run great hazard from its opposite, viz repletion. Many diseases, especially fevers, are the effect of a plethora, or too great fullness of the vessels. Strong people, In high health, have generally a great quantity of blood and other humours. When these are suddenly increased by an overcharge of rich and nourishing diet, the vessels become too much distended, and obstructions and inflammations ensue. Hence so many people are seized with inflammatory and eruptive fevers, after a feast or debauch.

      ALL great and sudden changes in diet are dangerous. What the stomach has been long accustomed to digest, though less wholesome, will agree better with it than food of a more salutary nature which it has not been used to.

      WHEN therefore a change becomes necessary, it ought always to be made gradually; a sudden transition from a poor and low to a rich and luxurious diet, or the contrary, might so disturb the functions of the body as to endanger health, or even to occasion death itself.

      WHEN we recommend regularity in diet, we would not be understood as condemning every small deviation from it. It is next to impossible for people at all times to avoid some degree of excess, and living too much by rule might make even the smallest deviation dangerous. It may therefore be prudent to vary a little, sometimes taking more, sometimes less, than the usual quantity of meat and drink, provided always that regard be had to moderation.

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