Food and the nineteenth-century British stomach

Ian Miller, Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow, Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland, University College Dublin

Stomachs have historical importance. The Victorians were obsessed with indigestion, the workings of the digestive system and the diverse food cultures that emerged as Britain industrialised and colonised. Accordingly, they produced a wealth of popular and medical literature on stomachs, digestion and diet. Perhaps the most memorable of these was an 1853 health tract penned by an obscure author named Sydney Whiting entitled Memoirs of a Stomach. This short book proved immensely popular. It ran into various editions and was even translated into French in 1888.

On the surface, Memoirs of a Stomach might appear to be an unusual choice of reading material for such an extensive audience, given that the main protagonist is a remarkably literate stomach, named Mr Stomach, who details the misery of his long life to the reader in painstaking detail. The organ begins by describing how his ancestry dates back to the invasion of the Saxons when the great Sir Hugh Stomach was created baron due to the huge quantities of beef that he was able to digest. Sadly, it is explained that Mr Stomach’s mother died soon after giving birth to him, ‘joining the stomachs of another sphere’. The consequence was the commencement of a life of poor health, prompted by the organ’s owner being breast-fed by a London woman whose milk was contaminated due to her over-indulgence in liquor and porter.

In his youth, so Mr Stomach complains, he was forced to digest adulterated flour, sweetmeats, oysters and tobacco smoke; foodstuffs not well-suited to his delicate constitution.  At college, the organ’s ‘master’ consumed long breakfasts that lasted until noon, during which masses of food from around the world would be poured into his cavity. It is at this point that dyspepsia (or indigestion) struck for the first time. Recovery ensued. However, shortly afterwards, the organ’s hapless owner fell in love. Mr Stomach bitterly recalled his master’s new-found habit of singing loudly, lamenting that he was ‘constantly being woke up in the night, and found myself either walked up and down the room, the maniac repeating love ditties’. The honeymoon proved to be an even more traumatic experience for the unfortunate stomach as the continental foods consumed by his ‘master’ played havoc with his health. Eventually, his ‘master’ secured employment in a well-paid city job that provided him with the financial resources to indulge excessively in alcohol, much to Mr Stomach’s disgrace.

The nervous stomach

Memoirs of a Stomach illustrates the organ’s pivotal positioning in Victorian constructions of the unhealthy body. During the late eighteenth century, new conceptualisations of the workings of the inner body had invested the stomach with enhanced significance. A growing acceptance of the bodily importance of the nervous system precipitated shifts in understandings of the interrelationship between different body organs. Edinburgh physician Robert Whytt was a central figure in this process. Whytt had developed the concept of ‘nervous sympathy’ to describe how different bodily parts interacted with one another. He depicted a bodily system rich with links between organs, all connected by the nervous system. He then applied the concept of ‘nervous sympathy’ to explain how pain or discomfort might be felt in organs far away from the initial seat of disease.

In these models, the stomach was prioritised as a key site of nervous energy. During the nineteenth stomach, the stomach can be found being described as ‘a focus of vitality – the centre of a department in which the living principle is most abundant and exquisite’, the ‘foundation or root of the complex apparatus’, the ‘great nervous centre or sensorium of organic life’ and even as the ‘great abdominal brain’. Contemporaneously, biologists speculated that the digestive processes were a central facet of all organic life. One popular theory suggested that as the lowest forms of life had no sense, pulse or motion, they were essentially animated stomachs. Digestion seemed to be their sole faculty. The sponge provided an illustrative example of this; a creature that appeared to consist almost entirely of minute pores, described by one author as ‘many little mouths, which perpetually suck in the sea-water, and the animalcules with which it abounds’. The sponge was one of the most primitive forms of life, and it appeared to do little else with its life but digest. It was, essentially, a swimming stomach. This encouraged conclusions to be drawn about the stomach being the most basic, and therefore the most important, of all human organs.

The most extreme proponent of views such as these was John Abernethy, a highly influential anatomy teacher and surgeon. Abernethy campaigned tirelessly for wider recognition of the bodily significance of the stomach, its illnesses and the distressing consequences of gastric sympathy. His influence was such that later on in the century, The Observer claimed that Abernethy’s development of concepts that all bodily disease was traceable to gastric derangement was one of the greatest services ever rendered to mankind.

Although few physicians were quite as obsessed with the stomach as Abernethy, a broad consensus existed on the organ’s physiological significance. In the 1850s, one Exeter physician, Dr Lamb, claimed to be able to relieve the symptoms of tuberculosis via the correction of digestive faults. James Johnson, famed editor of the Medico-Chirurgical Review, suggested that irregularity of the heart was a common consequence of stomach disorder. Sensory dysfunction was also regularly attributed to gastric sympathy with dimness or cloudiness of sight being regularly perceived as a direct result of a disordered stomach. Hypochondria was regularly perceived as a particularly critical outcome of the nervous sympathy between stomach and brain, leading patients to suffer from morbid mental diseases and to be tormented by imaginary sense of pains or disease and turn wearisome or apprehensive of life.

The stomach and British society

Worryingly, stomach problems seemed to be rife in nineteenth-century Britain. In virtually all nineteenth-century literature on digestion, gastric complaints were framed as problematic not only for the unfortunate individual crippled by abdominal pains, but also for British national health and progression. Advice given on digestion rarely dissociated these themes. In 1826, the Medico-Chirurgical Review stated that ‘there is no complaint more common in this country than an imperfect condition of the stomach’. Twelve years later, the Dublin Journal of Medical Science stressed that ‘stomach diseases are of every day occurrence; they form the national malady of Britain, and consequently the prime staple of the medical art’. Throughout the early 1850s, advertisements for Jones’ Tremadoes Pills announced that indigestion was the ‘prevailing evil of the human frame, and the fashionable disease of the age’. As late as 1886, adverts for Seigel’s Syrup declared that ‘the national disease of this country is indigestion’. The so-called ‘demons of dyspepsia’ were also immortalised in etchings by George Cruikshank. In the nineteenth century, gastric illness was presented as far more than just a physical concern for the individual to conquer. It seemed to pose a communal threat.

Concepts such as these also permeated non-medical literature. An article published in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Review in 1861 dramatised the predicament to such an extent that it  claimed that not only was England the country most liable to gastric conditions, but also that whilst labouring under such attacks, ‘nothing but family considerations prevented him [the Englishman] from blowing out his brains with a pistol, or effectually ridding himself of his woes by plunging into the muddy torrent of the Thames’. The author went so far as to speculate that only a fraction of the dyspeptic British had the courage to abstain from self destruction during the gloomy months of November and December, a period when multitudes of corpses of sufferers from crippling gastric diseases would supposedly be swept across the nation’s rivers.

What had caused this unfortunate situation? What factors had rendered the British so susceptible to chronic gastric problems? Some medical authors blamed rising levels of nervousness on Britain having advanced, modernised and become civilised. For some, the nervous structure of man’s natural body had failed to adapt in line with the quickening pace of modern life. A national mass of stomachs and nervous systems had yet to adjust to the requirements imposed by modernity. The modern urbanised British individual needed to somehow establish a way of maintaining the health of his/her body in accordance with nature’s requirements, even if he or she happened to be situated in a scenario where the body’s nervous structure had not yet adapted.

Contemporary literature on digestion explicitly envisioned the urban environment as an artificial obstacle which the natural stomach had to negotiate its way through in order to ensure full bodily health. Rural life was romantically constructed as a healthy norm while urban living was depicted as its antithesis: an unnatural departure that threatened to incur numerous health risks for its residents. In particular, the city was seen as bringing individuals  face-to-face with a vast array of predisposing causes with the potential to trigger an irreversible decline in gastric health; a process likely to commence with illness of the stomach and which threatened to spread throughout the system via the complex entity of nervous sympathy.

In 1830, The Times noted that dyspepsia was highly prevalent in the factory districts and that, via nervous sympathy, indigestion had resulted in the loss of teeth among many young women residing in these areas. The business classes, too, were seen as liable to dyspeptic attacks. These professionals were viewed as entangled in the constant whirl and rush of business, catching a mid-day meal only if they had time and being in the habit of drinking stimulants in order to set them up for work. These habits were especially notable at times when they were most harassed and worried about business. The physical nature of office work was also postulated as a likely cause of dyspepsia. Those employed in offices were considered at risk of damaging their stomachs due to the stooping position in which they wrote, a posture believed to mechanically interfere with the stomach’s various actions.

Corsets, too, were blamed. Reports of female deaths reported that the effects of the corset’s tight grip around the stomach combined with a crowded room, mental emotions and a dance had caused ladies to faint and even, in some instances, die. Gastric problems appeared to have infiltrated British society to such an extent that they now posed a threat to the health of all sections of society from the working-class factory girl to those fortunate enough to be living in a state of luxury. The threat of chronic dyspepsia now seemed to be everywhere.

Eating the right food

As Britain’s advance towards urbanity and civilisation appeared unlikely to halt or reverse, a plausible approach to resolving the problem of communal gastric illness was to educate the public on how best to navigate modern conditions by paying close attention to food intake and digestion. Dispensing dietary education became perceived as a paramount activity. The main concerns of literature on digestion were the quantities of food that stomachs could naturally digest; appropriate timing and distributions of meals; and moderating the varieties of food consumed. According to Abernethy, modern man was eating and drinking an enormous amount more than was necessary for his natural wants. He was filling his stomach and bowels with putrefying food; the elements of which would then be dispensed throughout the body via the nervous system. Accordingly, Abernethy advised moderation in food intake.

Appropriate meal distribution was presented as equally important. For many critical observers, urban life had disrupted man’s natural eating schedule. The removal of men from the countryside to the town seemed to have encouraged a postponement of dinner until five o’clock, if not later, in urban areas, a practice deemed to be ruining the health of thousands of city dwellers. One exception to this rule was Manchester, a city whose communal practice of dining at one was identified as being particularly beneficial for urban health, prompting claims that it should be introduced in every British town and city. This encouraged one anonymous Mancunian to assert that:

A Manchester man is never drowsy after dinner; he does not sink to the level of a boa constrictor, and indulge in a cozy, sulky snooze after eating; his motto is simper vigilans – wide awake; he knows nothing of dream-land; he cares nothing about fairy visions. He positively jumps up after eating a pound of beef-steak, and goes to his ledger as if nothing had happened. The Manchester stomach is sui generis; it is no more embarrassed by feeding than a steam boiler. O dura mercatorum ilia!

The increased variety of food available in Britain also caused concern. Modern life had encouraged global communication; one important consequence of this being an increase in the number of foods readily available for consumption. A belief existed that natural food supplies had been placed around the world that were best suited to those who lived there. New transport possibilities including canals, railways and boats were feared to have brought a highly refined and varied cuisine to all sections of British society, which the stomach was expected to digest. Dietary articles imported from entirely opposite climates were now being consumed in one single meal. The availability of such a complex diet appeared particularly troubling as it encouraged a radical departure from the needs of the average British constitution. As a warning, various physicians stressed that while most animals ate monotonously, urban man persistently defied the laws of nature by scarcely eating two similar meals in one day alone.

What, then, was considered to be the most appropriate natural diet for the British stomach? Esteemed physician Thomas Lauder Brunton made a lot out of the subject of prehistoric strawberries as the seeds of these had been found in a body believed to date from prehistoric Britain. In his view, it must therefore be a good source of food. Generally speaking, however, authors providing advice on digestive health eagerly expressed views on what substances were not good for the stomach rather than what were. Broadly speaking, it was condiments such as salt, vinegar, sauces and spices that were deemed as the most harmful to the British stomach, alongside stimulants including tea, coffee and alcohol. The lower animals were observed to never consume these. Modern human consumption seemed to complicate the natural work intended of the digestive organs as it represented a radical departure from the physiological needs of the animal world.

Stimulants including tea and coffee were also routinely targeted. Their introduction was seen to have produced an important change in the customs of European nations which, according to some, in fact constituted a profound revolution in dietetics. Tellingly, the widespread habit of tea drinking was seen as especially problematic in regions of Ireland, and attracted considerable comment in the late nineteenth century when a tea epidemic apparently ravaged parts of the west of Ireland. Alcohol was also frequently denounced in literature on stomachs and digestion. Some anti-alcohol advocates attempted to impress the negative effects of intemperance on the audience attending their meetings by bringing along preserved, dissected stomachs. One prominent temperance advocate, Dr Sirder, to the apparent amusement of the audience, inflated one of these stomachs with his breath whilst speaking at a public meeting, and then asked his onlookers if they thought it was possible to put a pound of rump steaks and four pots of beer into such a small cupboard as that. Evidently, nineteenth-century Britain witnessed an obsession with the stomach and digestion that produced a pervasive moralistic discourse on food and diet. Medical authors were particularly intrigued by questions of how man’s natural body was to adjust to modernisation, industrialisation and civilising processes. Maintaining a natural diet was upheld as a solution to this problem.

See also: I. Miller, A Modern History of the Stomach: Gastric Illness, Medicine and British Society, 1800-1950 (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2011).