William Banting was a London undertaker during the 19th century who in his later years suffered from obesity. Having tried various strategies he was advised to consume a diet which was low in sugar and other saccharine foods, which proved so successful that he decided to write a pamphlet describing his experience. This blog is based entirely on the fourth edition, published in 1869, for which he charged one shilling (5p in today’s money) in order to cover his costs of production (1).
Here are a few extracts from the preface which have the advantage of recording some of the responses to the earlier editions:
- “It is with no slight degree of pride and satisfaction that I presume to publish a fourth edition of my Letter on Corpulence, in the hope and belief that it may still further interest and benefit the Public
- It has happily attained a world-wide circulation, and afforded me a vast amount of pleasure and gratification, derived from the conviction that I have been the means of bringing under public consideration and discussion one of the little known and much neglected laws of nature. The popularity of my unpretending brochure is manifest, not only in the surprising sale of no less than 63,000 copies, in this country alone, but by its translation into foreign languages and its large and rapid circulation in France, Germany, and the United States. In addition to this I have received nearly 2,000 very complimentary and grateful letters from all quarters of the world
- The great principle which Mr. William Harvey (my medical adviser), of Soho Square, inculcated, having been confirmed by my own personal experience, I was enabled to speak with perfect confidence, and I became invulnerable to the ridicule, contempt, or abuse which were not spared in the earlier stages of the discussion. I believe I have subdued my discourteous assailants by silence and patience; and I can now look with pity, not unmixed with sorrow, upon men of eminence who had the rashness and folly to designate the dietary system as “humbug,” and to hold up to scorn the man who put it forth, although he never derived nor sought pecuniary or personal recompense, but simply desired, out of gratitude, to make known to other sufferers the remedy which he had found so efficacious to himself. I heartily thank the public press for the general fairness of its criticisms, and feel deeply indebted to the Morning Advertiser for its able article on 3rd October, 1865, when I was so sadly and unjustly attacked by certain prominent members of the British Association, whose feelings, now that the subject has been more widely and intelligently examined and discussed, I do not envy
- It has been reported to me that many medical men have argued that I could not have consulted any eminent members of their fraternity on the subject of obesity. I beg leave emphatically to assure the public that, for the 20 years, previous to consulting Mr. Harvey, I had no occasion to consult a medical man, for any other ailments except those which are the inevitable consequences of corpulence; and that, although my medical advisers were neither few, nor of second-rate reputation, not one of them pointed out the real cause of my sufferings, nor proposed any effectual remedy, until I appealed to my friend, Mr. Harvey, the celebrated aurist, on account only of deafness
- It is possible, and I think probable, that even Mr. Harvey was somewhat surprised at the extraordinary and speedy result of my rigid adherence to his advice, because he had long before prescribed the proper dietary system to reduce or cure corpulence, but his patients having hitherto imprudently slighted his prescriptions, it was only my very strict compliance that completely proved the accuracy of his judgment. My only merit consists in entire obedience to Mr. Harvey’s advice. To him alone belongs all the credit of the remedy. He was the first to lead me on to the true road of health, and I was probably the first of his many patients who kept to it
- Another eminent medical man, whose letter will appear among the rest, was actually giving my pamphlets in the course of his practice. I was greatly surprised to hear of it, and wrote to ascertain the fact. He invited me to call on him, and showed me that my information was correct by pointing to a pile of them lying upon his table. He complimented me upon the publication, as it contained sound advice in cases like my own; and added, that the discovery was not Mr. Harvey’s, but was derived from “Mons. Bernard, of Paris.” I replied that Mr. Harvey had told me he had first derived his information from lectures which he had heard in Paris, by Mons. Bernard, in regard to diabetes, and some other complaints, but that he had himself applied it to cases of corpulency. He admitted that the simple record of my own experience of the value of the system had brought it to the clear light of day, and that if it had been written by a medical man, it would scarcely have been noticed by the general public at all
- Probably no one was ever subjected to more ridicule and abuse than I have been, in English as well as in foreign journals. My only object, however, has been the good of my fellow creatures. To have accomplished this object, in any degree, is a sufficient reward for my expenditure of time and means, and an ample compensation for the insolent contempt of some, and the feeble ribaldry of others
- I have ascertained, by repeated experiments, that five ounces of sugar distributed equally over seven days, which is not an ounce per (lay, will augment my weight nearly one pound by the end of that short period. The other forbidden elements have not produced so extraordinary a result. In these, therefore, I am not so rigid. Some people (as will be seen by their letters) find other things detrimental. I never eat bread unless it is stale, cut thin, and well. toasted. I very seldom take any butter, certainly not a pound in a year. I seldom take milk (though that called so, in London, is probably misnamed), and I am quite sure that I do not drink a gallon of it in the whole year. I occasionally eat a potato with my dinner, possibly to the extent of 1 lb. per week. I spoke of sherry as very admissible, and I am glad of this opportunity to say, that I have since discovered it promoted acidity. Perhaps the best sherry I could procure was not the very best, but I found weak light claret, or brandy, gin, and whisky, with water, suited me better; and I have been led to believe that fruit, however ripe, does not suit me so well taken raw as when cooked, without sugar. I find that vegetables of all kinds, grown above ground, ripened to maturity and well boiled, are admirable; but I avoid all roots, as carrot, turnip, parsnip, and beet. I have not taken any kind of medicine for eighteen months, and find that my dietary contains all the needful regimen which my system requires. In the firm belief and conviction that the quality in food is the chief desideratum, and that the question of quantity is mere moonshine, I take the most agreeable and savoury viands, meat and game pies, that my cook can concoct, with the best possible gravies, jellies, &c., the fat being skimmed off; but I never, or very rarely, take a morsel of pie or pudding crusts
- The subjoined correspondence is only a portion of upwards of 1,800 letters which I have received. There is scarcely one out of the whole which does not breathe a spirit of pure thankfulness and gratitude for the benefits derived from the dietary system, and contain the most flattering encomiums on my character and motives.”
The publication of the pamphlet obviously had an enormous impact. It is quite revealing that Banting tried so many different approaches which turned out to be complete failures. The success achieved by so many others who followed his example was absolutely phenomenal and provided convincing evidence of its validity. Despite this Banting, was subject to criticisms from many quarters. In particular, the ignorance and arrogance of the mainstream medical profession is clearly demonstrated.
Here are some extracts from the main body of the pamphlet:
- “Few men have led a more active life—bodily or mentally—from a constitutional anxiety for regularity, precision, and order, during fifty years’ business career, from which I had retired, so that my corpulence and subsequent obesity were not through neglect of necessary bodily activity, nor from excessive eating, drinking, or self indulgence of any kind, except that I partook of the simple aliments of bread, milk, butter, beer, sugar, and potatoes more freely than my age required, and hence, as I believe, the generation of the parasite, detrimental to comfort if not really to health and comfort
- Although no very great. size or weight, still I could not stoop to tic my shoe, so to speak, nor attend to the little offices humanity requires without considerable pain and difficulty, which only the corpulent can understand; I have been compelled to go down stairs slowly backwards, to save the jar of increased weight upon the ancle and knee joints, and been obliged to puff and blow with every slight exertion, particularly that of going up stairs. I have spared no pains to remedy this by low living (moderation and light food was generally prescribed, but I had no direct bill of fare to know what was really intended), and that, consequently, brought the system into a low impoverished state, without decreasing corpulence, caused many obnoxious boils to appear, and two rather formidable carbuncles, for which I was ably operated upon and fed into increased obesity
- Bread, butter, milk, sugar, beer, and potatoes, which had been the main (and, I thought, innocent) elements of my subsistence, or at all events they had for many years been adopted freely
- These, said my excellent adviser, contain starch and saccharine matter, tending to create fat, and should be avoided altogether
- For breakfast, at 9.0 A.M., I take five to six ounces of either beef mutton, kidneys, broiled fish, bacon, or cold meat of any kind except pork or veal; a large cup of tea or coffee (without milk or sugar), a little biscuit, or one ounce of dry toast; making together six ounces solid, nine liquid.
- For dinner, at 2.0 P.M., Five or six ounces of any fish except salmon, herrings, or eels, any meat except pork or veal, any vegetable except potato, parsnip, beetroot, turnip, or carrot, one ounce of dry toast, fruit out of a pudding not sweetened, any kind of poultry or game, and two or three glasses of good claret, sherry, or Madeira— Champagne, port, and beer forbidden; making together ten to twelve ounces solid, and ten liquid.
- For tea, at 6.0 P.M., Two or three ounces of cooked fruit, a rusk or two, and a cup of tea without milk or sugar; making two to four ounces solid, nine liquid.
- For supper, at 9.0 P.M. Three or four ounces of meat or fish, similar to dinner, with a glass or two of claret or sherry and water; making four ounces solid and seven liquid.
- For nightcap, if required, A tumbler of grog—(gin, whisky, or brandy, without sugar)—or a glass or two of claret or sherry
- This plan leads to an excellent night’s rest, with from six to eight hours’ sound sleep
- My former dietary table was bread and milk for breakfast, or a pint of tea with plenty of milk, sugar, and buttered toast; meat, beer, much bread (of which I was always very fond) and pastry for dinner, the meal of tea similar to that of breakfast, and generally a fruit tart or bread and milk for supper. I had little comfort and far less sound sleep
- I have not felt better in health than now for the last twenty-six years.
- Have suffered no inconvenience whatever in the probational remedy or since.
- Am reduced nearly 13 inches in bulk, and 50 lbs. in weight.
- Can perform every necessary office for myself.
- The umbilical rupture is cured.
- My sight and hearing are suprising at my age.
- My other bodily ailments have become mere matters of history.
- Total loss of weight in 12 months 46 lbs
- All symptoms of acidity, indigestion, and heartburn (with which I was frequently tormented) have vanished. I have left off using boot-hooks, and other such aids, which were indispensable, but being now able to stoop with ease and freedom, are unnecessary. I have lost the feeling of occasional faintness, and what I think a remarkable blessing and comfort is, that I have been able safely to leave off knee-bandages, which I had worn necessarily for many years, and given up the umbilical truss
- The great charm and comfort of the system is, that its affects are palpable within a week of trial, which creates a natural stimulus to persevere for few weeks more, when the fact becomes established beyond question
- I only entreat all persons suffering from corpulence to make a fair trial for just one clear month, as I am well convinced, they will afterwards pursue a course which yields such extraordinary benefit, till entirely and effectually relieved, and be it remembered, by the sacrifice merely of simple, for the advantage of more generous and comforting food. The simple dietary evidently adds fuel to corpulent fire, whereas the superior and liberal seems to extinguish it.”
Banting certainly enjoyed a wide range of tasty foods. He limited the intake of carbohydrates but had plenty of others which contained fat. Essentially he followed the same basic principles which so many in recent years have found works very well as means of controlling Type 2 Diabetes (T2D) but is also effective as a means of losing weight. However there may well be serious doubts about recommending his intake of alcoholic beverages to all and sundry. Despite the success of the Banting approach and the widespread dissemination of how it was achieved, the valuable lessons have been forgotten as shown by the obesity crisis. It is rather ironic that so many people find themselves in the same position of Banting in the days before he encountered the progressive Mr Harvey. Banting died in March 1876 aged 81 years.
Although all this happened 150 years ago, the insight gained is just as applicable today as it was then. What is more there is now sound science, which provides detailed confirmation of the experience of Banting. Despite all the opposition which still exists, most people who reduce their intake of sugar and other carbohydrate-containing foods, will not only lose weight but also lower the risks of developing heart disease, T2D, cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease.