CRUSADERS FOR FITNESS: The History of American Health Reformers by James C. Whorton

CRUSADERS FOR FITNESS: The History of American Health Reformers

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A historical pageant of salvation through hygiene--featuring Sylvester Graham of cracker fame, Bronson Alcott's cousin William, free-love adherent Mary Gore Nichols (who embraced many causes), and a score of other American health reformers. In good scholarly fashion, U. of Washington medical historian Whorton (Before Silent Spring) relates the ups-and-downs of reform to social and political events, dwelling at length on the prime-movers during the heyday of Jacksonian democracy and the Progressive era. (The intervening Civil War and Gilded Age were, he posits, transitional times.) The biographies typically recount a passage from disease-or-depravity to vim-and-vigor through Enlightenment. (Whorton's sketch of boa vivant Howard Fletcher, who found health in chewing food slowly, is a particular delight.) Though he touches on homeopathy, hydropathy, and other alternatives to orthodox medicine, Whorton takes special interest in nutrition and exercise reforms. He traces the path from vegetarianism-as-humanitarianism (the bestiality of killing animals) to emphasis on its health benefits: disease derives from eating flesh. The intricate web of health, cleanliness, and godliness is a recurrent theme: one's duty as a Christian is to seek the Kingdom of Health, maintain the temple of the body, and follow Nature, which is good. Thus, guides to life preached abstinence (liquor, tobacco, drugs) and sexual restraint (once-a-month for married couples was quite enough). This Panglossian optimism then spilled over into advocacy of other causes: abolition, women's rights (freedom from corsets, not suffrage), physical education in school. Whorton is becomingly fair to his often-outrageous cast, but hardly solemn. (His humor sometimes comes in asides: ""Providence showed a Dickensian flair in giving leading vegetarians herbiverous names--Lambe, Metcalfe, Cowherd."") Are Adelle Davis, George Sheehan et al. today's counterparts? Discussion on that subject may draw extra attention to a sober yet amusing work.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1982
Publisher: Princeton Univ. Press