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  • Dilemmas and DelusionsBernard Shaw and Health
  • Christopher Wixson (bio)

His marvelous accomplishment, in solid contribution to thought and light stimulation to gayety, is so immense in volume as to have one explanation: perfect health.

—Archibald Henderson, Bernard Shaw: Playboy and Prophet

His essential healthy-mindedness and peculiar buoyancy never allowed him to sink into [the fin de siècle writers’] bogs of glorified decay, [and] the very mention of his name seems to clear the poisoned air a little.

—Maurice Colbourne, The Real Bernard Shaw

Beguiling a Victorian public obsessed with the pursuit of fitness, the International Health Exhibition opened in South Kensington in May 1884. Its expressed intent, to educate the public on a broad range of wellness topics, was greatly overshadowed by its dazzling display of proprietary medical commodities, salutary appliances, and faddish cures. While there were legitimate exhibits that dealt sincerely with issues of sanitation, hygiene, food, drink, and even child care, the event illuminated the extent to which personal and systemic therapeutic remedy and indeed health itself had become a lucrative industry. Less than three weeks before he joined the Fabian Society, the fledgling novelist Bernard Shaw visited one of the exhibition’s prominent attractions, Francis Galton’s Anthropometric Laboratory, to be quantified and measured. Chart 3655, created on 16 August 1884, contains the following collected data: [End Page 1]

the man

Colour of eyes, blue-grey.


Greatest distance in inches of reading “Diamond” type—Right eye, 23; left eye, 27.

Colour sense (goodness of)—Good.

Judgment of Eye.

Error per cent. In dividing a line of 15 inches—in three parts, 1 1/2; in two parts, 1/2.

Error in degrees of estimating squareness—1/4.


Keenness can hardly be tested here owing to the noises and echoes.

Highest audible note—Between 30,000 and 40,000 vibrations per second.

Breathing Power.

Greatest expiration in cubic inches—298.


Of squeeze in lbs. of—right hand, 83; left hand, 80.

Of pull in lbs.—57.

Span of Arms.

From finger tips of opposite hands—5 feet 11.7 inches.


Sitting, measured from seat of chair—3 feet 1.8 inches.

Standing in shoes…………………………………6 feet 0.8 inch [End Page 2]

Less height of heel………………………………… 0.7 inch

Height without shoes……………………………..6 feet 0.1 inch.


In ordinary indoor clothing in lbs.—142.1

Fittingly, Shaw’s exposition occurs under the auspices of an exhibition as simultaneously invested in health and product marketing as he would soon become.

What to me is most striking about the Galen lab report is that it captures an unusually quiescent image of Shaw, a stasis that is discordant with our sense of him as a vivacious, frenetic blur during those first decades in London, what Archibald Henderson deems “the quintessence of vital energy.”2 Throughout most of his life, Shaw was an active walker, cyclist, and swimmer, not to mention a compulsive reader, writer, and speaker whose engagement with the world around him was marked by a robust, ferocious vigor. Shaw’s use of language is itself acrobatic, his agile balancing of ideas, his graceful rhetorical athleticism across genres. In this sense, it is precisely his sanus agitatus that draws and sustains our interest, the rigor of his writing challenging us to keep up, work out, and stay in shape. In 1897, the Vegetarian noted of Shaw that “in the pursuit of his duties he has to work frequently under most unhealthy conditions and to face all weathers yet any observant stranger would turn and take a second look at Shaw’s virile figure in the street.”3 Indeed, more than a century later, we are still eagerly looking and, in some cases, still trying to catch up. Arguably, health was the fundamental preoccupation of Shaw’s work, Shavianism’s probiotic elixir the unifying thread of a prolific and expansive career.

The subject of health winds its way through every part of Shaw’s early London years, from committing to vegetarianism and contracting smallpox in 1881 to an exhaustive breakdown in 1898 resulting in a marriage to his ostensible nurse. Salient controversies of health, particularly during the last two decades of the nineteenth...


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