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Banting, William (1796-1878) English undertaker, best known as the "Father of the Low-Carbohydrate Diet"
Banting, who was 5 foot 5 inches, first became overweight in his thirties, and by the age of sixty-five weighed over 200 pounds, despite great efforts to lose and keep off excess weight. At this point, Banting consulted Dr. William Harvey, an ear, nose, and throat specialist, for his hearing loss. The doctor believed his obesity to be the cause of his increasing deafness, and Harvey put him on an experimental low-carbohydrate diet. The diet resulted in him losing 46 pounds over the next year and a great increase in his overall health, including the restoration of his hearing.
Banting's "Letter on Corpulence Addressed to the Public" was an account of how a successful, middle-class undertaker and coffinmaker (he had actually supplied the coffin for the Duke of Wellington) overcame his fat (Huff 2001). He was not fat because of inaction or lassitude:
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 . . . so that my corpulence and subsequent obesity was not through neglect of necessary bodily activity, nor from excessive eating, drinking, or self-indulgence of any kind.
(Banting 1864: 10-11)
And yet, at the age of sixty-six, he stood at about 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighed 202 pounds. He sensed that he had stopped being corpulent and had become obese. A "corpulent man eats, drinks, and sleeps well, has not pain to complain of, and no particular organic disease"
(Banting 1864: 13). But obesity was now a source of illness. He developed "obnoxious boils" (Banting 1864: 15), failing sight and hearing, and a "slight umbilical rupture" (1864: 16). He could neither stoop to tie his shoes "nor attend to the little offices humanity requires without considerable pain and difficulty." Indeed, he was "compelled to go down stairs slowly backward" (Banting 1864: 14). All of these pathologies were seen by Banting (and his physicians agreed) as the direct result of his obesity rather than his aging. In the appendix to the second edition, still distributed for free, Banting states that,
I am told by all who know me that my personal appearance is greatly improved, and that I seem to bear the stamp of good health; this may be a matter of opinion or a friendly remark, but I can honestly assert that I feel restored in health, "bodily and mentally," appear to have more muscular power and vigour, eat and drink with a good appetite, and sleep well.
(Banting 1863: 28)
Health is beauty.
Most galling for Banting, however, was the social stigma:
no man labouring under obesity can be quite insensible to the sneers and remarks of the cruel and injudicious in public assemblies, public vehicles, or the ordinary street traffic. . . . He naturally keeps away as much as possible from places where he is likely to be made the object of the taunts and remarks of others.
(Banting 1864: 14)
Underlying Banting's desire to lose weight is the fact that he was seen as a fat man and his body was perceived as useless and parasitic. One of his critics saw this as the core of Banting's personal dilemma. It was not fat but a "morbid horror of corpulence" and an "extreme dislike to be twitted on the subject of paunchiness" that is at the core of Banting's anxiety about his body (Aytoun 1864: 609). But he was certainly not alone. Brillat-Savarin tells the story of Edward of New York, who was a minimum of eight feet in circumference. . . . Such an amazing figure could not help but be stared at, but as soon as he felt himself watched by the passersby Edward did not wait long to send them packing, by saying to them in a sepulchral voice: WHAT HAVE YOU TO STARE LIKE WILD CATS? . . . GO YOU WAY YOU LAZY BODY . . . BE GONE YOU FOR NOTHING DOGS . . . and other similarly charming phrases.
(Brillat-Savarin 1999: 245)
Stigma, as much as physical disability, accounted for Banting's sense of his own illness.
Having been unable to achieve weight loss through the intervention of physicians, Banting was desperate. One physician urged him to exercise, and he rowed daily, which gave him only a great appetite. One physician told him that weight gain was a natural result of aging and that he had gained a pound for every year since he had attained manhood (Banting 1864: 13). Indeed, the medical literature of the mid-nineteenth century had come to consider obesity a problem of medical therapy; it condemned self-help: "Domestic medicine is fraught with innumerable evils—it is false economy to practice physic upon yourselves, when a little judicious guidance would obviate all difficulties" (Banting 1864: 20). He took the waters at Leamington, Cheltenham and Harrogate; he took Turkish baths at a rate of up to three a week for a year but lost only 6 pounds in all that time and had less and less energy. Nothing helped.
Failing a treatment for his weakened hearing, he turned to William Harvey, an ear, nose, and throat specialist and a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in August 1862. Harvey had heard Claude Bernard lecture in Paris on the role that the liver had in diabetes (Harvey 1872: 69). Bernard believed that in addition to secreting bile, the liver also secreted something that aided in the metabolism of sugars. Harvey began to examine the role that the various types of foods, specifically starches and sugars, had in the diseases such as diabetes. He urged Banting to reduce the amount of these in his diet, arguing "that certain articles of ordinary diet, however beneficial in youth, are prejudicial in advanced life, like beans to a horse, whose common food is hay and corn" (Banting 1864: 17). The aging body could not use the common diet and needed much less sugar and starch.
Banting's body finally began to shed its excess weight. He lost 35 pounds, could walk down stairs "naturally," take ordinary exercise, and could "perform every necessary office for himself," his rupture was better, and he could hear and see (Banting 1864: 22-3). But, equally important, his "dietary table was far superior to the former—more luxurious and liberal, independent of its blessed effect" (Banting 1864: 21). He remained at a normal weight until his death in London in i878 at the age of eighty-one. Not quite i00, but not bad either.
Banting's pamphlet became a bestseller and started a serious, scientific concern as to the meaning of obesity. It was actually one of a number of such pamphlets of the day. One, by A.W. Moore in 1857, cited Cornaro as the prime case of one who was able to lose weight and become healthy (Moore 1857: 12-13). Watson Brad-shaw, a physician who had written on dyspepsia before Banting's pamphlet appeared, countered it in 1864 with his own work on obesity warning against "rash experiment upon themselves in furtherance of that object" (Bradshaw 1864: iii). For Watson Bradshaw, the ideal of the fat body in cultures such as China and Turkey, where the "ultima thule of human beauty is to possess a face with a triple chin, and a huge abdomen" had become impossible in the West. It was impossible because the "assimilative function has changed its character—the absorbents have varied their duties—fat forsakes the lower extremities and other parts of the body; and persists in concentrating itself in the abdomen, giving rise to what is called 'Corpulence' " (Bradshaw 1864: 6). Corpulence is a condition of the modern, Western age, and, concentrated as it is in the gut, a quality of men. It is clear that this is a pathological state for Bradshaw, but it is only the extreme cases that he sees as diseased. In a pamphlet of 1865, "A London Physician" wrote about "How to Get Fat or the Means of Preserving the Medium between Leanness and
Obesity." He begins by saying that the one question that everyone asks is "Have you read Banting?" and this has "invaded all classes, and doubtless, will descend to posterity" ("A London Physician" 1865: 7). "Corpulence is a parasite, that the parasite is a disease, and the close ally of a disease, and the said parasite has been exposed and his very existence threatened" by writers such as Banting and William Harvey. This pamphlet then turned to the emaciated body, which is seen as equally at risk and in need of diet and reform.
But it was Banting's text that became most popular because it was sold as autobiographical. People spoke of "banting" when they tried to shed weight. Even today, the term in Swedish to diet is "bantning." The obese patient was the subject of reform, and for a rather long time, the patient was seen as a European one. Banting's mentor, William Harvey, turned to this topic in 1872, spurred on, he wrote, by Banting's success. Harvey stressed that the new scientific advances in "physiology and animal chemistry" (1872: vi) have meant that one could treat obesity as a disease. Banting began his pamphlet with the argument that obesity was a "parasite affecting humanity" (Harvey 1872: 7). Suddenly, sufferer and physician saw it alone as the product of forces beyond the will. But Harvey agreed with Banting that until this stage of pathology is reached, "persons rarely become objects of attention; many have even congratulated themselves on their comely appearance, not seeking advice or a remedy for that which they did not consider an evil" (Harvey 1872: ix). One of Banting's severest contemporary critics, William E. Aytoun, observed that:
We are acquainted with many estimable persons of both sexes, turning considerably more than fifteen stone in the scales—a heavier weight than Mr. Banting ever attained—whose health is unexceptionable, and who would laugh to scorn the idea of applying to a doctor for recipe or regimen which might have the effect of marring their developed comeliness.
(Aytoun 1864: 609)
Is fat a definitive sign of disease? Even Daniel Lambert was seen as healthy until his death.
Banting and Harvey redefined obesity as a physiological disease rather than as a fashion or a moral failing.
Yet Harvey could not make a sufficient leap between his knowledge and the actual mechanism by which "respiratory foods" (carbohydrates) caused obesity and then other ailments. It was Felix Niemeyer from Stuttgart who later argued that it was the ingestion of more or less pure protein that would reduce the toxic effects of sugars and starches (Harvey 1872: 129-48). All believed that the body was a collection of chemical processes. Questions of will and its attendant diseases are eliminated.
See also Atkins; Brillat-Savarin; Cornaro; Lambert; Sugar Busters; Zone Diet
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