E nglish physician and diet therapist, personal physician and friend to Samuel Richardson, and the author of An Essay on Health and Long Life (1724). George Cheyne's autobiography is appended not to his book on longevity but also notably to his 1733 handbook, The English Malady, or, a Treatise of nervous diseases of all kinds, as Spleen, Vapours, Lowness of Spirits, Hypo-chondrical, and Hysterical Distempers (1733). Life experience becomes the basis for his claim to the authenticity of his understanding of how to cure the obese body. But it is also vital to realize that the portrayal of Cheyne's body evoked in his autobiography is the caricature of the fat man, such as Trulliber in Henry Fielding's parody of the novel of female sensibility, Joseph Andrews (1742):
he was indeed one of the largest Men you should see, and could have acted the Part of Sir John Falstaff without stuffing. Add to this, that the Rotundity of his Belly was considerably increased by the shortness of his Stature, his Shadow ascending very near as far as in height when he lay on his back, as when he stood on his legs.
(Fielding 1987: 127)
In this depiction, the fat man is a comic character, a figure larger than life who can exist only on the stage or in the comic novel. Cheyne was described by Alexander Pope in i739 in a letter to their mutual friend Lord Lyttelton as "a Perfect Falstaff" (Macmichael 1828: 56-7).
Cheyne, born in Scotland in 1673, studied medicine in Edinburgh and established himself in London by the beginning of the eighteenth century as one of the most successful (and interesting) figures on the medical scene (Guerrini 2000). Wracked with self-doubt after a number of his books were either ignored or attacked, he had a massive breakdown at the age of forty-two. The cause of the ailments is clear in Cheyne's account. While he
Winfrey, Oprah (2004) "Incredible Transformations," The Oprah Winfrey Show (broadcast January 12).
came from healthy parents, one side of his family was corpulent. He himself was not as a child, because he lived the life of the mind "in great Temperance" (Cheyne 1733: 325). His predisposition to fat, he states, was triggered when he moved to London, where he fell into the company of "Rottle-Companions, the younger Gentry, and Free-Livers" (Cheyne 1733: 325). The sole purpose of this companionship was to eat and drink. Taken up by them, Cheyne "grew daily in Bulk," and, after a few years, he grew "excessively fat, short-breathed, Lethargic and Listless" (Cheyne 1733: 326). He then began to suffer from a series of illnesses, each of which more difficult than the last to cure. Fits followed fever. As he became more and more ill, his friends abandoned him, "leaving me to pass the melancholy Moments with my own Apprehensions and Remorse" (Cheyne 1733: 326). Such friendship, founded on "sensual pleasures and mere Jollity," were false, as they were not rooted in "Virtue and in Conformity to the Divine Order" (Cheyne 1733: 328).
Forced to retire to the country, Cheyne began to diet, stripping his daily food down to the barest, and he "melted away like a Snow-ball in Summer." He became an adept of the growing craze for vegetarianism, ascribing his new health to a diet of milk, fruit, roots, and seeds. In many ways, he was the first celebrity "diet doc." But Cheyne also claims this was easier for him as he had been led astray rather than having given himself into the vices of London society. He was able to cure himself because he remained an outsider to the "Vices and Infidelity" that were the modern, urban world. In this, Cheyne sees society as the cause for his ailments, and the countryside and the acknowledgment of "natural Religion" (Cheyne 1733: 33i) as the cure. Cheyne's image of the country as the refuge from a life of dissipation and the place where the obese, ill body could be reconstituted as a healthy, male body is a reflection on the newly emerging belief that the ideal state of nature is the only place where healthy, thin, and beautiful bodies exist.
Cheyne's cure was not limited to the countryside, but he also attempted to be cured by waters at Bath and at Bristol (Cheyne 1733: 334). He dieted, and he regularly vomited and purged—and he lost weight. And yet, he continued to have illness after illness. He finally went onto a "milk diet" suggested by one of his physicians who had used it himself. No alcohol in any form, no meats, only milk, and the physician claimed that he could play six hours of cricket without tiring. Cheyne reduced his meat and alcohol intake, adding vegetables, seeds, bread, "mealy roots, and fruit" (Cheyne 1733: 337). And the weight continued to come off. He became "Lank, Fleet and Nimble" (Cheyne 1733: 338). Riding 10 to 15 miles a day, he felt he was fit, even though he continued to purge and vomit. He suddenly felt that he could add some meat, chicken, and a few stronger liquors. He also stopped exercising and soon became very ill again. He then returned to his diet for twenty years and continued "sober, moderate and plain" (Cheyne 1733: 342). And yet, over time, he fell into the habit of adding more and more foods, alcohol, meat, nuts; his weight returned and he again became "enormous": "I was ready to faint away, for want to Breath, and my Face turn'd Black." Upon trying to walk up a flight of stairs, he was "seiz'd with a Convulsive Asthma" (Cheyne 1733: 342). His body was covered in ulcers, and he began to suffer from gout. The pain forced him back on his milk diet. He suffered from "Sickness, Reaching, Lowness, Watchfullness, Eructation, and Melancholy" (Cheyne 1733: 346). His mental state was as bad as his physical one.
Yet, all along he continued to practice as a physician: "I attended indeed (in a manner) the Business of my profession, and took Air and Exercise regularly in the Daytime; but in such a wretched, dying Condition as was evident to all that saw me" (Cheyne 1733: 348). He was persuaded to return to London at the end of 1725 where he then met with his medical friends who were not the dandies that had abandoned him. He tried to return to the earlier diet, but was suddenly aware that the flexibility of youth had diminished and that he had to be ever more watchful and vigilant in his present state (Cheyne 1733: 350). This meant no meat, little alcohol, and a modicum of medicinal port. While a healthy diet, it is only one that one comes to in extremity: "no one will ever be brought to such a Regimen as mine is now, without having been first extremely Miserable; and I think Com mon Life, with temperance, is best for the Generality, else it would not be Common" (Cheyne 1733: 353). What he ate is familiar to us from Cornaro: "the Simplicity of the Alimentary Gospel." He avoided "onions and garlick" (Cheyne 1733: 355). Still, he continued to suffer from flatulence and eruction—belching—for a time. But he became fit, able to "be abroad in all Weathers, Seasons or Times of the Year, day or Night, without much Dread or Hazard of Cold" (Cheyne 1733: 358). More importantly, when he had a carriage accident and was knocked unconscious, he was able to recover, according to him, because of the new state of his health (361). Dieting preserves life in all cases and makes one a better and more moral human being. Cheyne's powerful view that only vegetarianism furthers the sensitive nature of man became part of the image of the vegetarian. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was to argue, using a Cheynian view, that the English were "cruel and ferocious" because of the "roast beef" (Guerrini 1999: 38 and Stuart 2006: 234).
See also Cornaro; Vegetarianism
Was this article helpful?
Studies show obesity may soon overtake tobacco as the leading cause of death in America. Are you ready to drop those extra pounds you've been carrying around? Awesome. Let's start off with a couple positive don't. You don't need to jump on a diet craze and you don't need to start exercising for hours each day.