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  • Obesity and Diet in the Nineteenth Century:Framing Verdi and Boito’s Healthy Falstaff
  • Sander L. Gilman (bio)

In 1863, William Banting sat down and penned his autobiography. In it he accounted for his obesity and how he overcame it. In doing so he showed his mental as well as physical health. His Letter on Corpulence Addressed to the Public was an account of how a successful, middle-class undertaker and coffin maker (he had actually supplied the coffin for the Duke of Wellington) overcame his paunch (see Huff). He was not fat because of inaction or lassitude: 'Few men have led a more active life - bodily or mentally - from a constitutional anxiety for regularity, precision, and order, during fifty years' business career ... so that my corpulence and subsequent obesity was not through neglect of necessary bodily activity, nor from excessive eating, drinking, or self-indulgence of any kind' (10-11). And yet, at the age of sixty-six, he stood at about five feet five inches tall and weighed 202 pounds. He sensed that he had stopped being corpulent and had become obese. A 'corpulent man eats, drinks, and sleeps well, has not pain to complain of, and no particular organic disease' (13). But obesity was now a source of illness. He developed 'obnoxious boils' (15), failing sight and hearing, and a 'slight umbilical rupture' (16). He could neither stoop to tie his shoes 'nor attend to the little offices humanity requires without considerable pain and difficulty' (14). Indeed, he was 'compelled to go down stairs slowly backward' (14). All of these ailments were seen by Banting (and his physicians agree) as the direct result of his obesity rather than his aging. In the appendix to the second edition, still distributed for free, Banting states, 'I am told by all who know me that my personal appearance is greatly improved, and that I seem to bear the stamp of good health; this may be a matter of opinion or a friendly remark, but I can honestly assert that I feel restored in health, "bodily and mentally," appear to have more muscular power and vigour, eat and drink with a good appetite, and sleep well.' Health is beauty.

Most galling for Banting, however, was the social stigma: 'no man labouring under obesity can be quite insensible to the sneers and remarks of the cruel and injudicious in public assemblies, public vehicles, or the ordinary street traffic. ... He naturally keeps away as much as possible from [End Page 759] places where he is likely to be made the object of the taunts and remarks of others' (14). Underlying Banting's desire to lose weight is the fact that he was seen as a fat man and his body was perceived as useless and parasitic. One of his critics saw this as the core of Banting's personal dilemma. It was not fat but a 'morbid horror of corpulence' and an 'extreme dislike to be twitted on the subject of paunchiness' that is at the core of Banting's anxiety about his body (Aytoun, 609). But he was certainly not alone. The French critic (and self-described sufferer from obesity) Brillat-Savarin tells the story of Edward —— of New York, who was 'a minimum of eight feet in circumference. ... Such an amazing figure could not help but be stared at, but as soon as he felt himself watched by the passersby Edward did not wait long to send them packing, by saying to them in a sepulchral voice: "WHAT HAVE YOU TO STARE LIKE WILD CATS? ... GO YOU WAY YOU LAZY BODY ... BE GONE YOU FOR NOTHING DOGS" ... and other similarly charming phrases' (245). Stigma, as much as physical disability, accounted for Banting's sense of his own illness. It was stigma that separated him from the universal experiences of his contemporaries.

Having been unable to achieve weight loss through the intervention of physicians, Banting was desperate. One physician urged him to exercise, and he rowed daily, which only gave him a great appetite. One physician told him that weight gain was a natural result of aging and that he had gained a pound for every year since he had attained manhood...


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