Graham was born in 1794, the youngest of seventeen children. His elderly father died soon after. Because his mother was unable to care for him, he was put under the care of a succession of relatives. His early years contained little formal schooling as he worked on relatives' farms, clerked in stores, and labored in a paper mill. At the age of sixteen, he started to show signs of tuberculosis, which would trouble him on and off for the rest of his life.
Graham received tutoring in his late teens and worked for a time as a teacher until illness forced him to quit. At the age of twentynine, he enrolled at Amherst College. He studied conscientiously and made a reputation for his dramatic oratorical style. He soon fell ill again, however. Upon recovering, he married one of the women who had attended him in his sickness.
Not long after his marriage, Graham became a preacher in the Presbyterian Church. His attention was captured by the growing temperance movement and, in 1830, he moved to Philadelphia to be a fulltime speaker for the Pennsylvania Temperance Society. His interests led him to study health more generally. While doing this, he came into contact with William Metcalfe of the vegetarian Bible Christian Church and read widely about diet.
Graham came to national attention in 1832. As the first great cholera epidemic slowly moved toward the United States, people's health fears were heightened. Graham lectured on the uses of proper diet as a preventive for disease and people came to hear him lecture by the hundreds. Throughout the 1830's Americans debated the teachings of Graham, and he was both acclaimed and scorned. Graham boarding houses, Graham restaurants, and Graham publications sprang up, all inspired by his views.
During the last decade of his life, Graham continued his writing while living in Northampton, Massachusetts. He died there at the age of 57 in 1851.
What Graham developed was a preventive health system with vegetarianism at its heart. In doing this, he was opposing the traditional medical wisdom of his day, which called for bleeding, purges, and other violent treatments for ailments. Americans of 1830 knew very little about how to maintain health. In his lectures, he noted that most Americans "regard diseases as substances or things which enter their bodies with so little connection with their own voluntary actions and habits that nothing which they can do can prevent disease."1 It was that attitude he tried to change by convincing people to take more responsibility for their health. "If human existence is worth possessing, it is worth preserving," he exhorted his listeners.2 Graham's ideas found an eager audience among Americans, many of whom were deeply distrustful of the doctors of their day.
Graham produced a variety of arguments for vegetarianism. He believed that God had outlined for mankind the ideal diet and proper healthful practices, and that scripture ordained a vegetarian diet in its description of foods provided for people in the Garden of Eden. He also argued from anatomy, saying that the human has the physiology of the herbivore. In addition, he took examples from the history of vegetarian cultures, discussed anecdotes about vegetarian societies from around the world, and opposed the cruelty involved in the raising and killing of animals for food. He called his most important book Lectures on the Science of Human Life and felt that science would vindicate his beliefs.
Meat, he believed, was an unnatural food. However, as with the use of tobacco or alcohol, meateating could become a habit or even an addiction. Graham taught that dairy products were also capable of causing problems.
Graham provided detailed rules for his lowfat, highfiber diet. Special care was to be given to the preparation of bread at home. (Graham accused commercial bakeries of adulterating their products.) He also felt the times of eating were important, saying that meals should be no closer than six hours apart. Graham saw overeating as the root of many health problems.
The Graham system extended beyond diet to other areas of health. He described the positive effects of getting enough sleep and the benefits of regular bathing. Exercise and proper ventilation were also promoted.
The ideas of preventive health were not original to Graham. His uniqueness was to gather them together and present them to the public. Graham believed in teaching physiology to the public, an idea unheard of at the time, but one that has become part of a basic education today. He touted prevention over traditional treatments and helped make this idea part of popular culture. This concept caught on so strongly that mainstream doctors were forced to begin to come to terms with it. Graham and his followers were not the only promoters of public health, but they were the first, the best organized, and the most energetic. One historian has noted that "their efforts' success has meant much to our people in terms of esthetic values, decreasing illness and even a lowered mortality rate."3
Graham's diet, with its emphasis on vegetarianism, high fiber, and low fat, is remarkably similar to the diets being promoted today to improve health. In a sense, science has spent much of this century proving Graham right. When vitamins were first discovered, an article in a 1914 issue of the Scientific American saw this as a vindication of the Graham system with its championing of fruits and vegetables. Countless studies since have confirmed the superiority of the vegetarian diet described by Graham.4 Those groups of Americans who have followed diets similar to Graham's have shown significantly better health than the population as a whole.
Graham and his followers' stress on exercise is believed by some historians to have helped fuel the sports boom that began in the 1830's. His educational efforts regarding cleanliness and proper rest also had an impact on the popular mind.
Sylvester Graham would have liked to convince every American to adopt his system and become a vegetarian. This, obviously, did not happen. Nevertheless, he was a crucial influence on our modern concept of a healthy lifestyle.
1 Sylvester Graham, Lectures on the Science of Human Life, (London, William Horsell, 1854), p. 420.
2 Graham, p. 530.
3 Richard Harrison Shryock, Medicine in America: Historical Essays, (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins, 1966), p. 125.
4 Percy G. Styles, "Vitamines", Scientific American Supplement, LXXII (June 27, 1914), p. 402.
Larry Kaiser is a freelance writer from Michigan.
This article appears in Vegan Handbook, published by The Vegetarian Resource Group.