Henry Salt Archive

Henry Salt (1853-1939) was the author of the Life of Henry David Thoreau, Animals Rights and A Plea for Vegetarianism which inspired Gandhi for follow a vegetarian diet.

Medical Men and Food Reform

by H. S. Salt

The commonest obstacle to Food Reform, as indeed to every other Reform, is prejudice. The popular belief that flesh-food is the best diet for mankind is so deeply rooted in the minds of every class of Englishmen, from highest to lowest, that we cannot reasonably hope to eradicate it all at once. We can only look for the gradual conversion of the most intellectual classes, and the consequent spread of wiser dietetic views to the rest of the community. In the meantime it is well worth our while to consider one remarkable fact often urged against us by our adversaries, that of special classes or professions the one which is most strongly opposed to Vegetarianism is that of medical men. There are of course many notable exceptions; we too can appeal to illustrious names in support of our arguments; but it is nevertheless undeniable that nearly all ordinary physicians entirely condemn the principles of Food Reform, and believe animal food to be most desirable, if not absolutely necessary, for good health.

How are we Vegetarians to explain this fact? The influence of medical men both on public and private opinion is unquestionably very great, and at present the whole weight of this influence is thrown into the scale against us. What answer are we to make to the question, so often asked—“Why are so few doctors Vegetarians?”

Some Food Reformers do not scruple to impute dishonest motives to the Medical Profession, and hint that doctors disparage Food Reform because they would find their occupation gone or greatly limited, if a more natural and simple diet-system were generally adopted. Such imputation seems to me to be singularly unfortunate, being not only foolish in itself, (for the introduction of Vegetarianism, being necessarily very gradual, would injure no class-interests whatever), but also most damaging to the cause of Food Reform, which can ill afford to substitute insinuation for argument. We ought rather candidly to admit that the opinion of medical men is hostile to Food Reform, and to attempt to discover the reason of an antagonism which we must necessarily deplore.

Vegetarians are generally well able to hold their own in argument against flesh-eaters, when the diet question is discussed in ordinary conversation. But there is certainly something a trifle embarrassing in the position of a Food Reformer, who, being as ignorant as most people are of the details of physiology, may chance to find himself landed in unequal controversy with a medical man full of technical knowledge and scientific precision. Can he venture to adhere to his own unprofessional opinions, in spite of the distinct assurance of his learned antagonist that he has “specially studied this subject and satisfied himself beyond a doubt that flesh-food is necessary for mankind”? Can he doggedly maintain that he lives in the best of health without meat, in opposition to one who blandly but firmly assures him, (with perfect knowledge of his internal construction) that he is entirely mistaken? In short, can he rely on his own native common-sense, when it is apparently in conflict with the professional knowledge of a specialist?

I think that he can. For it should be observed that “the great food question," as it has been truly called, is not merely one of the many medical subjects which may be successfully studied and systematized by chemists and doctors; still less a mere scientific fact which can be demonstrated with mathematical precision; but a matter of far wider import, a many-sided problem which can only be solved by a delicate appreciation of the tastes, feelings, and practical experience of mankind. I believe that a physician, in his capacity of physician, is no better qualified than any ordinary person to decide such a question.

Indeed, all such questions must be decided finally by natural instinct and experience, rather than by technical knowledge; by innate wisdom rather than by acquired learning. This fact is seen in every branch of art and science, from the humblest to the highest. A bootmaker is the best possible authority on the particular subject of boot making, but it would not be wise to consult him on the general study of the human foot and the style of covering most suitable thereto. A tailor is undeniably a valuable adviser about coats and trousers, but it would be a sign of ill-placed confidence if one blindly accepted his opinion on the wider question of appropriate natural costumes. So too in intellectual matters. One would scarcely look to a schoolmaster who has devoted a life-time to one particular system for an unprejudiced opinion on the general question of education; or to a sectarian clergyman for liberal views on Theology. In fact, it seems as if all special professions have to some extent a narrowing influence on the mind, which in ordinary cases prevents specialists forming an unbiassed judgment on any question which extends beyond the precise limits of their actual professional practice. This principle is recognized in many of our institutions. The jurymen, for instance, who decide lawsuits; the governing bodies who rule our public schools; even the minister chosen to superintend the various departments of our government, are not trained officials whose minds l:ave long been moulded in the professional groove, but private individuals who may bring to their duties the advantage of clear unprejudiced judgment and sound common-sense. Of course it is not to be denied that it would be still better if professional knowledge could always go hand in hand, as it sometimes does, with perfect mental impartiality; but as this is unfortunately seldom the case we are bound to choose the lesser of two evils. We prefer, in matters of wide interest, to trust to our private judgment and experience, rather than to any professional advice; because we find that professional men, being entirely committed to one line of thought, are usually more liable to prejudice than private individuals.

A good example of the fallibility of the medical profession may be seen in the history of the temperance question. Not many years ago a vast majority of medical men unhesitatingly affirmed on scientific grounds that the use of alcoholic drinks is beneficial and even necessary, and much ridicule was lavished on those who, relying upon personal taste and practical experience, took the contrary view. Now the laugh is on the other side, and the immense progress of the temperance movement has proved beyond doubt that our doctors were wrong. But if our medical advisers, who professed to be able to tell us what to drink, have erred so egregiously in the question of liquor, is it so incredible that they are making a similar mistake in the question of food?

The truth is that medical men are very far from being infallible, either in their individual opinion or collective judgment. Prejudice often affects classes as strongly as individuals, and the class of which I am speaking is certainly no exception to the rule. Trained in a special school of medicine, with many immemorial and therefore unquestioned traditions as to the relative utility of various kinds of food and drink, what wonder if medical men are disturbed and irritated by the suggestion that their whole diet-system is based on an insecure foundation? And this is precisely what Food Reformers assert, when they advocate the disuse of all stimulants in food as well as in drink, and condemn flesh-meat no less than alcohol.

It is therefore no marvel that Food Reform has hitherto received but little encouragement from the medical profession. A system of plain food and natural simplicity of life is not likely to find favour with those who conscientiously believe that they can make us for the present a moderately healthy and happy nation by feeding us with “butcher’s meat” and vaccinating us against our will; while they turn a wistful eye to vivisection, in the hope of a shower of yet more beneficent discoveries in the future.

On the other hand, we vegetarians need not be the least alarmed or disconcerted by finding the medical profession arrayed in arms against us. Their intentions are beyond doubt excellent; but, like other good people, they require time to take in new ideas. We must not wonder if they show signs of some vexation, and do all they can (which is a good deal) to retard the cause of Food Reform, for it is undoubtedly irritating to them to find the rude test of practical experience applied to the delicate theories or medical science. When doctors have declared that their patients cannot live without meat, how annoying and perplexing it must be to see them thriving on a vegetarian diet! We can at least comfort ourselves with the recollection that on other questions medical men have repeatedly shifted their ground, when proved by time to be hopelessly in error; from which we may venture to predict that in like manner they will eventually change their opinion even on the question of diet.

Published: The Food Reform Magazine, Vol. II No. 1, July 1882