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Sylvester Graham – Biography

About Sylvester Graham (1794-1851)

Graham crackers and graham bread were named after Sylvester Graham,
one of the earliest 19th-century health reformers or Hygienists.
Bread was made precisely, as described in his Treatise on Bread and Bread-Making.

The roots of modern dietary science can be traced back to Sylvester Graham. Prior to his era, there was a significant lack of understanding about what constituted a healthy diet. 

It’s a fascinating detail that the graham cracker and graham bread we know today were actually named after Dr. Sylvester Graham, a key figure in 19th-century health reform. His teachings may be lesser known, but their impact was profound. 

Born on July 5th, 1794, Graham was the youngest of 17 children and was considered a delicate child. His father passed away when he was two, and his mother fell ill at the same time. Consequently, he spent his childhood moving from one relative’s home to another. One of his relatives ran a tavern, where Graham was put to work. His exposure to drunkenness and its effects on health led him to despise alcohol. This was unusual, as, during that time, everyone drank.

When he was sixteen, he was believed to have “contracted consumption.” He was sent to the countryside and worked as a clerk in a country store in New York. He emphasizes that his improved diet and hygienic lifestyle allowed him to stay alive and healthy for as long as he did.

At one point, when his health was low, he was nursed by a local woman, Sarah Manchester Earl. He fell in love with her, and they married on Sept 19, 1824. Together they had three children (Sarah, Henry, and Caroline). 

After various attempts at other careers, he became a Presbyterian minister in 1829. During this time, he studied anatomy, physiology, and general health, ultimately emerging as a great health teacher. He wrote a book on “Chastity” and began showing interest in moral and social reform. He also wrote a book entitled “An Apology” as a response to critics who used his frail constitution as an argument against his teachings.

Shortly after getting married, he made a bold decision to leave the church and dedicate himself to advocating for the Pennsylvania Temperance Society. As a passionate speaker and spokesperson, he not only emphasized the physical risks of drinking but also highlighted specific foods and non-alcoholic beverages that should be avoided. Furthermore, he passionately promoted the practice of fasting, and the Graham Journal of Health and Longevity, published from 1837 to 1839, fervently detailed the numerous benefits of this approach.

Graham dedicated himself to advocating for the
Pennsylvania Temperance Society

The “Crusade for Health and Physiological Reform” was initiated in 1830 by Sylvester Graham through his lectures and writings. He consistently drew audiences of three thousand people or more as he traveled around New England, mostly through word-of-mouth advertising. This was quite an impressive feat considering people had to travel by buggy or on foot. Graham continued lecturing for many years with great success and was always well-received.

After delivering his lectures, Sylvester Graham gained instant followers. One of them was Mary Gove Nichols, who established a Graham Boarding house. These Graham Houses often functioned as small hotels in New York City, Boston, and Rochester. The focus was on diet, daily cold showers, and getting good sleep. Meals, which consisted of no more than three items, were to be consumed six hours apart at precisely the same time every day. Mary and her husband, Dr. Thomas Nichols, went on to create the American Hydropathic Institute. It was the first medical establishment created to teach the principles of water therapy and supported Graham’s lifestyle. 

In 1837, Graham and David Cambell founded The Graham Journal of Health and Longevity. They aimed to illustrate, using facts and reasoning, the science of human life as taught by Sylvester Graham. Graham became a champion of Natural Hygiene and living reform, boldly asserting that right living is a more specific means to health than resorting to physicians and drugs. During this time, a group of Graham’s converts founded the world’s first physiological society (The American Physiological Society) in Boston to promote Grahamism. Dr. William Alcott was the first President of the Society.

Graham’s Lectures On the Science of Human Life,
became a leading text on health reform.

Sylvester Graham, Dr. William Alcott, Dr. Russell Thacker Trall, and William Metcalfe, the pastor of the Bible-Christian Church, founded the American Vegetarian Society (AVS) in Philadelphia. The society held its first official meeting at the Bible-Christian Church in Philadelphia on September 4, 1850, after a founding convention in New York City. However, during the Civil War, the group’s membership and influence declined as the nation’s focus shifted towards the war.

From being a crusader against alcohol to becoming a crusader for health reform, Graham developed a lifestyle that included proper diet, regular exercise, chastity, emotional control, sensible clothing, adequate sleep and rest, and equal opportunities for education. These themes garnered both followers and foes. The meat industry felt threatened by his advocacy of vegetarianism, and bakers were concerned about his promotion of homemade bread from unbolted wheat (as in Graham crackers – he wrote the Treatise on Bread and Bread-Making). His Lectures On the Science of Human Life, published in 1839, became a leading text on health reform.

Sylvester Graham died at age 58 on September 6, 1851.

Life in the 1800s

The early 1800s was a time of outbreaks. The leading causes of death for adults during this period were malaria and tuberculosis, while children commonly died from measles, mumps, and whooping cough. The general death rate was high, but for infants and children, it was excessively high. Many mothers died in childbirth or from childbirth fever. 

The early 1800s was a time of outbreaks. The leading causes of death for adults during this period were malaria and tuberculosis, while children commonly died from measles, mumps, and whooping cough.

Grains, bread, pork, and lard pies were central to people’s diets—vegetables and fruits were neglected. Many thought that fruits and vegetables were the cause of cholera. 

Bathing and fresh air were feared. Houses were unventilated and foul-smelling. Sunlight was not permitted to enter lest it fade carpets or tapestries. Sanitation was neglected; tobacco was used almost universally, and disease was rampant.

The medical “art” in America during this period seems incomprehensible today. Physicians frequently bled patients to “force” the disease “out,” and many died in the process. Blistering was also a widespread healing technique. For at least a century, strychnine, a potent poison, was the best remedy the profession had to offer for paralytic conditions. Quinine was frequently used for fever, with such side effects as severe bleeding, kidney damage, irregular heartbeat, and severe allergic reactions.

It was a day of frequent and heroic dosages of toxic drugs and frequent bleeding. In the South, there was a cry of fever during the summer, and calomel (a mercury chloride mineral) was used. By the 19th century, calomel was viewed as a miracle drug. It was used against almost every disease, including syphilis, bronchitis, cholera, ingrown toenails, teething, gout, tuberculosis, influenza, and cancer. These were administered lavishly, thus adding to the horror.

During this time, a popular protest against the bleeding and heroic drug dosing practiced by the “regular or allopathic” medical profession began. Homeopathy and physio-medicalism arose in response to the demand for milder medication, while the Hygienic System came into being and created opposition to all medication whatsoever.”

Henry S. Tanner’s world map depicts the spread of cholera in 1832 (red) in Pennsylvania. 
Courtesy of the New York Academy of Medicine.

Influences on Graham’s Approach

Cholera swept over the world with terrible devastation. In 1832, Philadelphia was in the middle of a severe cholera epidemic. The death rate was high. 

During this time, the dietary practices of a small sect of Christians, the Bible Christian Church, came to Graham’s attention. They did not consume animal foods, spices, or other flavorings and did not use stimulants such as tea or coffee. They also didn’t consume alcohol or use tobacco. They believed that people should eat from the Garden of Eden. Contrary to what was expected from the medical teachings of the time, not a single member of the Bible-Christian Church died from cholera. This fact made a deep and lasting impression on Graham and caused him to turn his attention to the study of diet.

Graham’s publication (1832), A Lecture on Epidemic Diseases Generally: and Particularly the Spasmodic Cholera, is worthy of note. Dr. Graham firmly believed that the continued abuse of the body reduces its “vital energy” and that the human system will be powerfully predisposed to take on disease. He thought that if people adopted his lifestyle guidelines, they would be in little danger of the disease. He also pointed out that in large cities, humans were in a perpetual state of “low vital energy” and believed this contributed to the spread of the disease. He prescribed liquids and simple foods until the patient recovered. More importantly, he laser-focused on prevention to keep the body healthy through lifestyle: simple food, cleanliness, pure air, and exercise, which became the foundation of the National Health Association. During this epidemic, he researched and could not ascertain that a single individual who had attended his lectures and followed his regime had died of cholera.

Sylvester Graham became a sought-after lecturer on temperance and the pillars of health. He was as prolific a writer as he was a lecturer. So radical and revolutionary did his lectures seem to the medical profession and educated people of the time that it required a quarter of a century for them to discard false notions about vegetables and fruits causing cholera and concede that Graham may have been right.

Teachings

Graham launched a crusade for health and physiological reform through his lectures and writings. As he described, the “Graham lifestyle system” was explained in books and magazines, such as The Graham Journal of Health and Longevity.

He was best known for his book Lectures On the Science of Human Life. This enormous volume of 650 pages was published in 1843! Considering that it was written over 150 years ago, it is remarkable and a veritable classic on the subject. This text covered practically the entire field of the hygienic reform movement, diving into anatomy, physiology, mortality, regularity in eating, thorough mastication, hygienic cookery, quantity and quality of food, fasting, sleep, air, bathing, and exercise. Scholars have selected this work as being significantly crucial regarding human health. It is a foundation of the knowledge base of health science as we know it today and has been digitally preserved for generations to come.

Graham lectured primarily in New York, Rochester, Providence, Buffalo, and many other cities. People traveled primarily by buggy or foot during this time, yet he attracted large audiences and created a growing following.

Transportation 1800s
People traveled primarily by buggy or foot during this time, yet Sylvester Graham
attracted large audiences and created a growing following.

He was a revolutionary thinker and far ahead of his peers. He was emphatic that so-called “diseases” could invariably be avoided by those who adopted his reformed lifestyle. He became a pioneer of Natural Hygiene and living reform and provided a foundation for the National Health Association. He boldly asserted that right living is the foundation of health rather than resorting to physicians and drugs. Sylvester Graham was a groundbreaking pioneer well over 150 years ahead of his time.

Graham Boarding Houses, Restaurants, and Bookstores

Considering how difficult it was to find and eat simple foods back then, Grahamites (those following this lifestyle) formed different organizations in various cities and colleges.

In Boston, an organization of Grahamites established the world’s first health food store, and a particular bookstore was established to provide food for thought. A Graham “table” was set at Brook Farm, near Boston. The same thing was true at Oberlin College. 

Many people boarded in homes at this time, and Graham boarding houses sprung up. People instinctively knew they would need support in this lifestyle, and these boarding houses and restaurants filled that need. These houses had definite rules that the boarders followed. Meals were set at 6 a.m., 12 p.m., and 6 p.m. Daily bathing was strongly encouraged. Bedtime was set at 10 p.m. No tea, coffee, alcohol, or tobacco was allowed, and the food was whole, primarily fruits and vegetables. Bread was made precisely, as described in his Treatise on Bread and Bread-Making. He believed the perfect bread is made from whole ingredients and is light, sweet, and well-baked, retaining its nutrient value. Most people during this time depended on bakeries for their bread and used flour stripped of its nutrients and added things like alum (short for aluminum potassium sulfate) and many other sulfates (zinc, magnesium, copper, and ammonia), to name a few. These ingredients were added to make bread light and white, losing its nutritional value.

Many people boarded in homes at this time, and Graham boarding houses sprung up. People instinctively knew they would need support in this lifestyle, and these boarding houses and restaurants filled that need. These houses had definite rules that the boarders followed.

Though his philosophy was alien to the habits of the Americans in the 1830s, Sylvester Graham was able to instill a further respect that, in many ways, has not been equal to this day. He had within him the elements needed to attract large audiences and convert a great many of them to a course of living that was natural, or proper, for men.

The books and articles that Sylvester Graham wrote for 21 years had a great influence not only on the vegetarian and hygiene movements but also on religious groups. He was a forerunner, by many years, of those who are advocating the use of a simple diet because of the vitamins and other nutrients that they contain and are essential for health.    

Though he was castigated and misrepresented in newspapers, periodicals, and medical journals and even attacked by mobs, he nevertheless held fast to his ideas and continued to advocate them all his life. Prominent people from all walks of life were attracted to his concepts, and many were converted to the principles of right living as a result.

Considering life during the 1800s, as noted above, was not health-promoting on any level, these boarding houses and restaurants were an oasis in a world of poor health and nutrient-deficient food. It taught people the foundation of a healthy lifestyle, and doing so a very long time ago!

Sylvester Graham will always remain a bright star among the great thinkers of the ages. Take time and read some of his monumental works, as they are linked under publications, and you will see for yourself, as well as obtain inspiration and guidance from a pioneer almost 200 years ago!



Author’s Note: 

After reading A Lecture on Epidemic Diseases Generally, and Particularly the Spasmodic Cholera, the similarities between people dying of COVID and cholera truly struck me. You can go to Pub Med and find any number of reports on COVID-19 (e.g., COVID-19 in Italy: Considerations on Official Data).

The majority of people who died in both epidemics had pre-existing health conditions. The people who did get sick and were able to recover were in good health. Your health is worth working for.

Sylvester Graham was, without a doubt, over 150 years ahead of his time. Truly a groundbreaking pioneer for the National Health Association.


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The NHA wishes to remind the readers that nothing in this or other publications is intended to constitute medical treatment or advice. Readers should further be aware that in several areas, previous publications do not reflect the current teachings or approach to health of the NHA.

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