Vegan diets and the risk of deficiency
diseases – the story of Shelly
One of the earliest objective accounts of the effects of a vegetarian diet in English is Thomas Love Peacock’s observations of his friend, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelly. I think these are interesting because Shelly’s ordeal is very similar to what enthusiastic young people subject themselves to today, and because Peacock’s dry humour can speak for the rest of us.
Quotes are from Thomas Love Peacock’s Memoir of Percy Bysshe Shelly.
Shelly had come under the influence of JF Newton, author of The Return to Nature, or A Defense of the Vegetable Regimen.
Peacock wrote of Newton “He was an estimable man and an agreeable companion, and he was not the less amusing that he was the absolute impersonation of a single theory, or rather of two single theories rolled into one. He held that all diseases and all aberrations, moral and physical, had their origin in the use of animal food and of fermented and spirituous liquors; that the universal adoption of a diet of roots, fruits, and distilled water, would restore the golden age of universal health, purity, and peace ; that this most ancient and sublime morality was mystically inculcated in the most ancient Zodiac, which was that of Dendera…”[I will spare you Peacock’s lengthy exposition of this astrological system]
“At Bracknell, Shelley was surrounded by a
numerous society, all in a great measure of his own opinions in relation to
religion and politics, and the larger portion of them in relation to vegetable
Shelley had published the treatise, A Vindication of Natural Diet, in 1813.
But Peacock was skeptical of Shelly’s claims to superior health;
His vegetable diet entered for something into his restlessness. When he was fixed in a place he adhered to this diet consistently and conscientiously, but it certainly did not agree with him; it made him weak and nervous, and exaggerated the sensitiveness of his imagination. Then arose those thick - coming fancies which almost invariably preceded his change of place. While he was living from inn to inn he was obliged to live, as he said, ' on what he could get '; that is to say, like other people. When he got well under this process he gave all the credit to locomotion, and held himself to have thus benefited, not in consequence of his change of regimen, but in spite of it. Once, when I was living in the country, I received a note from him wishing me to call on him in London. I did so, and found him ill in bed. He said, ' You are looking well. I suppose you go on in your old way, living on animal food and fermented liquor ?' I answered in the affirmative. ' And here,' he said, ' you see a vegetable feeder overcome by disease.' I said, ' Perhaps the diet is the cause.' This he would by no means allow ; but it was not long before he was again posting through some yet unvisited wilds, and recovering his health as usual, by living ' on what he could get '.
In Edinburgh he became acquainted with a young Brazilian named Baptista, who had gone there to study medicine by his father's desire, and not from any vocation to the science, which he cordially abominated, as being all hypothesis, without the fraction of a basis of certainty to rest on. They corresponded after Shelley left Edinburgh, and subsequently renewed their intimacy in London. He was a frank, warm-hearted, very gentlemanly young man. He was a great enthusiast, and sympathized earnestly in all Shelley's views, even to the adoption of vegetable diet. He made some progress in a translation of Queen Mab into Portuguese. He showed me a sonnet, which he intended to prefix to his translation. It began — Sublime Shelley, cantor di verdade !
and ended — Surja Queen Mab a restaurar o mundo.
I have forgotten the intermediate lines. But he died early, of a disease of the lungs. The climate did not suit him, and he exposed himself to it incautiously.
On our way up, at Oxford, he [Shelly] was so much out of order that he feared being obliged to return. He had been living chiefly on tea and bread and butter, drinking occasionally a sort of spurious lemonade, made of some powder in a box, which, as he was reading at the time the Tale of a Tub, he called the powder of pimperlimpimp. He consulted a doctor, who may have done him some good, but it was not apparent. I told him, If he would allow me to prescribe for him, I would set him to rights." He asked, ‘What would be your prescription ? ' I said, ' Three mutton chops, well peppered/ He said, ' Do you really think so? ' I said, ' I am sure of it." He took the prescription; the success was obvious and immediate. He lived in my way for the rest of our expedition, rowed vigorously, was cheerful, merry, overflowing with animal spirits, and had certainly one week of thorough enjoyment of life.
(There is a confirmation of Peacock’s statement above in a letter Shelly wrote to Hogg in September, 1815, 'on my return from a water excursion on the Thames,' in which Shelley remarks that 'the exercise and dissipation of mind attached to such an expedition have produced so favourable an effect on my health, that my habitual dejection and irritability have almost deserted me.’)
At the time of publishing A Vindication of Natural Diet, Shelly was subject to bizarre hallucinations and phobias, an example of which is given below by Peacock
About the end of 1813, Shelley was troubled by one of his most extraordinary delusions. He fancied that a fat old woman who sat opposite to him in a mail coach was afflicted with elephantiasis, that the disease was infectious and incurable, and that he had caught it from her. He was continually on the watch for its symptoms ; his legs were to swell to the size of an elephant's, and his skin was to be crumpled over like goose-skin. He would draw the skin of his own hands, arms, and neck very tight, and if he discovered any deviation from smoothness, he would seize the person next to him, and endeavour by a corresponding pressure to see if any corresponding deviation existed. He often startled young ladies in an evening party by this singular process, which was as instantaneous as a flash of lightning. His friends took various methods of dispelling the delusion. I quoted to him the words of Lucretius : —
Est elephas morbus, qui propter flumina Nili Gignitur Aegypto in media, neque praelerea usquam. *
He said these verses were the greatest
comfort he had. When he found that, as the days rolled on, his legs retained
their proportion, and his skin its smoothness, the delusion died away.
* the gist of this quote seems to be that elephantiasis is only generated from the waters of the Nile.