The Stomach and its Discontents: Digesting the Winter Holidays

photo 1“One of the most uncomfortable beings on earth is a Dyspeptic. To most other invalids there is some hope of a change […] It will neither kill the patient nor depart from him. Hitherto, it has been more hopeless than a sentence of imprisonment for life.” –J.C. Eno, A Treatise on the Stomach and its Trials 1865.

For a number of people, the winter holidays coincide with family meals of increased size and frequency, an unaccustomed embarrassment of riches. (I recall family dinners of my youth wherein an entire table had been commandeered only for desserts, for instance.) But as with all good things, too much is the cause of various complaints–mostly to digestion.

A look at our historical collections might suggest to the casual reader that ailments of the stomach occupied our forebears more than anything else. The variety of tracts, treatises, books, warnings, cures, and quackery are matched only by the strange moralistic tenor of their presentation. The stomach made the man (and woman), apparently, and to be plagued by bad digestion was a more devilish thing, if we take Eno’s suggestion, than dphoto 2eath itself. What was a dyspectic to do?

The suggestions for cure might surprise and alarm you. Eno remained convinced that the secret to good digestion was proper nutrition, and what could be more nutritious than “raw meat jelly”? Milk and eggs were also highly recommended (let’s hope none of the patients were lactose intolerant). [1] Of course, J.C. Eno might not be the very best or most unbiased account. He was, after all, a manufacturer of digestive aids!

Some other useful anecdotes from the collection:

1. Remember to chew! From DIGESTION AND ITS DISORDERS, 1867, F.W. Pavy:

“Defective mastication, arising from a habit of too hastily eating–or bolting the food, or from a faulty condition of the masticatory organs, forms a frequent source of imperfect digestion.”  [2]

2. Always be mindful of those hard to digest items…again, not for the lactose intolerant. Or for the vegetarian, apparently. From ON PAIN AFTER FOOD, 1854, Edward Ballard:

“These observations show that vegetable substances generally are digested less readily than animal, and that inviducal articles, veal and pork are digested most slowly; mutton, beef, and fowl with greater rapidity; turkey, lamb, and young pig and potato still more readily; fish, milk, pearl barley and tapioca more quickly than these; and that gastric digestion was completed in the shortest time in the instances of rice, eggs, salmon, tripe and venison.” [3]

3. Moderation in all things! From THE STOMACH AND ITS TRIALS, 1865, J.C. Eno:

A Judicious Rule–1st, Restrain your appetite, and get always up from table with a desire to eat more; 2d, Do not touch anything that does not agree with your stomach, be it mot agreeable to the palate. As Burton says, ‘Excess of meat breedeth sickness, and gluttony causeth choleric diseases; by surfeiting many perish, but he that dieteth himself prolongeth his life.” [1]

4. Let us not get carried away, though… INDIGESTIONS, 1867, Thomas King Chambers:

“A few years ago, during the prevalence of the attention excited by Mr. Banting’s case [miraculous weight loss], I did indeed hear reports of persons having injured themselves by adopting with over-strictness the system by which that famous man tells us he regained the sight of his toes, forgetting that no similar mountain to his had ever impeded their view… The possible rectification of their circumference is not worth such stoicism, and they stop in good time.” [4]

So Happy New Year to all! May we digest these winter months with as much or more grace as our forebears (all “meat jelly” aside).

By Brandy Schillace, Research Associate, Guest Curator, Dittrick Museum


[1] Eno, J.C. The Stomach and its Trials. London, 1865.

[2] Pavy, F.W. A Treatise on the Function of Digestion; its disorders, and their treatment. London, 1867.

[3] Ballard, Edward. On Pain After Food, London, 1854

[4] Chambers, Thomas King. Indigestions; or Diseases of the Digestive Organs, Functionally Treated., London, 1867.