First Do No Harm

William Banting
1796 - 1878

File:William Banting.pngWilliam Banting was a London undertaker.

Undertaker you say? And why would an undertaker be found on the pages of a site devoted to health and wellness?

Though it is true that Frank Lloyd Wright said, "The physician can bury his mistakes." that is not why we want to tell you about William Banting.

William Banting was a short, obese man who one day discovered he could no longer bend over to tie his shoes. "Unable to reach his laces, he gingerly eased his feet into his shoes with a boot hook - taking care as he stooped not to stress the angry boils on his buttocks." [The Telegraph]

To avoid the pain in his knees, he walked down the stairs backwards. And besides the boils, he suffered from carbuncles, failing sight, and impaired hearing, and insomnia. He was the only one in his family who suffered from corpulence and when he found people on the street sniggering and making cruel remarks, he sunk himself into his work to avoid social gatherings.

Like anyone corpulent today, Banting tried everything. He took up to three Turkish baths a week and lost a bit. Then he tried a starvation diet, which only increased his weight when he quit that. He took brisk walks, took up horse riding and rowing. He admits, "It is true I gained muscular vigour, but with it a prodigious appetite, which I was compelled to indulge, and consequently increased in weight, until my kind old friend advised me to forsake the exercise."

Ready to give up, he went to see his physician. However, his physician happened to be away on his usual summer holiday and instead showed up in the office of the distinguished surgeon, Dr William Harvey. When Banting laid out his struggles before the good doctor, Harvey perked up. You see, he'd just returned from a conference in Paris where he'd heard Claude Bernard deliver a lecture on diet and diabetes. Harvey took copious notes as Banting described his daily food intake.

Harvey prescribed the following: cut out potatoes, bread, sugar, milk, and beer. He tore off the sheet he'd been scribbling on and handed it to Banting. It had the following regimen upon it:

Breakfast, 9am: 6 oz of either beef, mutton, kidneys, broiled fish, bacon or cold meat of any kind except pork or veal; 9 oz of tea or coffee without milk or sugar; a little biscuit or 1 oz of dry toast.

Lunch, 2pm: 5-6 oz of any fish except salmon, herrings or eels, or any meat except pork or veal; any vegetable except potato, parsnip or beetroot, turnip or carrot; 1 oz of dry toast; fruit out of a pudding, not sweetened; any kind of poultry or game; 2-3 glasses of good claret, sherry or Madeira. Champagne, port and beer are forbidden.

Tea, 6pm: 2-3 oz of cooked fruit, a rusk or two, tea without milk or sugar.

Supper, 9pm: 3-4 oz of meat or fish similar to lunch. For nightcap, if required, a tumbler of grog (gin, whisky or brandy, without sugar) or a glass or two of claret or sherry. [The Telegraph]

Banting was absolutely delighted at this prescription. It was much more liberal than any diet he'd ever considered. He was so delighted, he tipped the good doctor and extra fifty pounds to give to his favorite hospital.

Banting stuck to his diet and lost around 50 pounds over the next two years and even wrote a booklet called Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public (still in print today) outlining his diet plan. He took no compensation for his work, and has been viewed by many as a great humanitarian.

On the darker side, he was attacked by by others and vilified for advancing his low-carb diet (very much as Robert Atkins was when he took it up 100 years later).

In his letters, Banting wrote that he regrets not having photos of himself taken at the beginning of his diet as proof to all the unbelievers. Ironic how today, before and after photos are a must in marketing any diet scheme.

Up until 1963, the word "bant" was listed in the Oxford English Dictionary. It meant, "to diet."


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