Saturday, July 20, 2019

The Portly Victorian Undertaker Who Launched the World’s First Low-Carb Craze

Keto man!

From Narratively:

William Banting tried every 19th century weight-loss fad, from caustic laxatives to vapor shampoos. Polite society was shocked when he unveiled the method that finally worked.
In the fall of 1852, it seemed that all of London turned out in mourning dress for the funeral parade of Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington. The colossal procession, a long snake of black fabric, ostrich feathers and horseflesh, took four and a half hours to wind its way through the city streets, and no expense had been spared. Six thousand new gaslights were installed at St. Paul’s Cathedral for the occasion, and the body of the “Iron Duke” was carried on an ornate 10-ton funeral car studded with spears and streamers, his corpse nested in four coffins of pine, oak, lead and mahogany. Tennyson’s “Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington” sold like hotcakes for a shilling a copy, according to Cornelia D.J. Pearsall’s “Burying the Duke,” as a million people crowded roads and upper floors to catch a glimpse of the procession.

It was not just a funeral — it was an event. And it was all thanks to William Banting, a well-to-do London cabinetmaker and undertaker whose elaborate burials turned royal deaths into massive public spectacles. Banting, and his father before him, had prepared memorials for generations of British dignitaries, from King George to Lord Nelson, but despite the magnitude of these contributions to king and country, his name is remembered today not for the mahogany coffins and prancing stallions, but the fact that he became an unwitting diet guru.

Ten years after Wellington’s funeral, after a long career burying kings and statesmen, Banting found himself newly retired and deeply unhappy. This was because, in August of 1862, then in his mid-60s, he stood just shy of five and a half feet tall and weighed 202 pounds. 

“Of all the parasites that affect humanity,” he wrote in his “Letter on Corpulence,” “I do not know of, nor can I imagine, any more distressing than that of Obesity.”

Banting’s frustrations seem all too familiar to many today who struggle with weight loss. No one in his family was inclined to be overweight, he noted, and he kept what he considered a reasonable level of physical activity. Noticing the number on the scale begin to creep up in his mid-30s, he consulted a doctor friend, who recommended some stout exercise. Neither willpower nor planning was a problem for a man who routinely organized royal ceremonials. Mr. Banting went to the Thames every morning and rowed his heart out in a good, steady boat, but while this caused him to gain strength and fitness, it also made him want to eat a horse.

“I was compelled to indulge,” Banting admitted, “and consequently increased in weight, until my kind old friend advised me to forsake the exercise.”

Banting tried every diet and lifestyle fad available in the middle 19th century: walks by the seaside to take in fresh air, caustic medicines and laxatives, “taking the waters” in favorable locations, Turkish baths, riding horseback, and so restricting his food intake that he likened it to living on pennies a day. One doctor advised “vapor-baths and shampooing” to work up a sweat. 
Nothing seemed to swing the scale more than a few pounds, and at a time when trim gentlemen could be found in the press openly complaining about too many fat men on the London bus lines, the “sneers and remarks of the cruel and injudicious in public” couldn’t help but get through.

This wasn’t just a value judgment equating size with personal failure, either. In fact, Banting wrote, if a larger person managed to eat, drink and sleep well, and was free of pain or disease, more power to him. Most physicians considered gradual weight gain simply a part of the privilege of growing older in the 19th century. Banting, rather, felt he was being cut off from a full life, from access to public spaces and “advantages to health and comfort.”....