A Doctor from the 1800’s view on Health

100_0499-11I recently read a book by a Scottish born MD that was originally published in 1886 – Gordon Stables “The Cruise of the Land-Yacht Wanderer” or “Thirteen Hundred Miles in my Caravan”. Though the book itself made enjoyable and interesting reading, it was the appendix on health that really caught my attention. How did a doctor in the 1800’s view health and wellness!

The following are some exerts from the appendix on Health.

“ I know there are many people who suffer from debility of nerves, from indigestion, and from that disease of modern times we call ennui ( feeling listless and discontented, tired and bored), which so often precedes a thorough break-up and a speedy march to the grave.  Seeing that ennui does not weaken any one organ more than another, but that its evil effects are manifested in a deterioration of every organ and portion of the body and tissues at once, let us consider for a moment what health really is.

To put it in my own homely way: if a young man, or a middle-aged one either, while spending a day in the country, with the fresh breezes of heaven blowing on his brow, with the larks a-quiver with song in the bright sunshine, and all nature rejoicing,—I tell you that if such an individual, not being a cripple, can pass a five-barred gate without an inclination to vault over it, he cannot be in good health.

Nay, but to be more serious, let me quote the words of that prince of medical writers, the late lamented Sir Thomas Watson, Bart:—

“Health is represented in the natural or standard condition of the living body.   It is sufficient for our purpose to say that it implies freedom from pain and sickness; freedom also from all those changes in the natural fabric of the body, that endanger life or impede the easy and effectual exercise of the vital functions. It is plain that health does not signify any fixed and immutable condition of the body. If we can form and fix in our minds a clear conception of the state of health, we shall have little difficulty in comprehending what is meant by disease, which consists in some deviation from that state—some uneasy or unnatural sensation of which the patient is aware; some embarrassment of function, perceptible by himself or by others; or some unsafe though hidden condition of which he may be unconscious; some mode, in short, of being, or of action, or of feeling different from those which are proper to health.”

Can medicine restore the health of those who are threatened with a break-up, whose nerves are shaken, whose strength has been failing for some time past, when it seems to the sufferer—to quote the beautiful words of the Preacher—the days have already come when you find no pleasure in them; when you feel as if the light of the sun and the moon and the stars are darkened, that the silver cord is loosed, the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher broken at the fountain?

No, no, no! a thousand times no. Medicine, tonic or otherwise, never, alone, did, or could, cure the deadly ailment called ennui. You want newness of life, you want perfect obedience for a time to the rules of hygiene, and exercise above all.

Good habits, I say, may be formed as well as bad ones; not so easily, I grant you, but, being formed, or for a time enforced, they, too, become a kind of second nature. Let me simply enumerate, by way of reminding you, some of the ordinary rules for the maintenance of health.

Diet.—Errors in diet produce dyspepsia, and dyspepsia may be the forerunner of almost any fatal illness. It not only induces disease itself, but the body of the sufferer from this complaint, being at the best but poorly nourished, no matter how fat and fresh he may appear, is more liable to be attacked by any ailment which may be in the air. Dyspepsia really leaves the front door open, so that trouble may walk in.

The chief errors in diet which are apt to bring on chronic indigestion are:

  1. Over-rich or over-nutritious diet.
  2. Over-eating, from which more die than from over-drinking.
  3. Eating too quickly, as one is apt to do when alone, the solvent saliva having thus no time to get properly mingled with the food.
  4. The evil habit of taking “nips” before meals, by which means the blood is heated, the salivary glands rendered partially inert, the mucous membrane of the mouth rendered incapable for a time of absorption, and the gastric juices thrown out and wasted before their proper time, that is meal-time.
  5. Drinking too much fluid with the meals, and thereby diluting the gastric juices and delaying digestion.
  6. Want of daily or tri-weekly change of diet.
  7. Irregularity in times of eating.


Drink.—I do not intend discussing the question of temperance.

  1. But if stimulants are taken at all, it should never be on an empty stomach.
  2. They ought not to be taken at all, if they can be done without.
  3. What are called “nightcaps” may induce sleep, but it is by narcotic action, and the sleep is neither sound nor refreshing. The best nightcap is a warm bath and a bottle of soda water, with ten to fifteen grains of pure bicarbonate of soda in it.

Cream of tartar drink. This should be more popular than it is in summer. A pint of boiling water is poured over a dram and a half of cream of tartar, in which is the juice of a lemon and some of the rind; when cold, especially if iced, it is truly excellent in summer weather. It cools the system, prevents constipation, and assuages thirst.

Fresh air.—The more of this one has the better, whether by day or by night. Many chronic ailments will yield entirely to a course of ozone-laden fresh air, such as one gets at the seaside, or on the mountain’s brow. Have a proper and scientific plan of ventilating your bedrooms. Without air one dies speedily; in bad air he languishes and dies more slowly; in the ordinary air of rooms one exists, but he cannot be said to live; but in pure air one can be as happy and light-hearted as a lark.

Exercise.—This must be pleasurable, or at all events it must be interesting—mind and body must go hand in hand—if exercise is to do any good. It must not be over-fatiguing, and intervals of rest must not be forgotten.

Work, is not exercise. This may seem strange, but it is true. I tell my patients, “I do not care how much you run about all day at your business, you must take the exercise I prescribe quite independently of your work.”


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