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Sylvester Graham: Detailed Biography

Sylvester Graham

Few people today realize that today’s version of the graham cracker and graham bread were named after Dr. Sylvester Graham, one of the earliest 19th-century health reformers or Hygienists. While his name is known to few, his teachings greatly influenced that century. 

Modern dietary science is said to have had its beginnings with Sylvester Graham, for until his time, there was a great deal of ignorance regarding a healthful diet. 

His Early Years

He was born in 1794, the youngest of seventeen children. He was a delicate child and, at the age of sixteen, was thought to have contracted consumption, a once common term for wasting away of the body, particularly from tuberculosis (TB). Indeed, his frail constitution remained throughout his life, and—as he points out—it was only his reformed diet and hygienic mode of life that enabled him to stay in active health and alive as long as he did.

Not long after he was born, his father died. Graham’s mother could not care for all her children, and Sylvester Graham frequently stayed with a variety of his extended family. One of his relatives ran a tavern where Graham was put to work. His experience observing excessive drinking and its impact on one’s health led him to despise alcohol.

When his health was low, he was nursed by a local woman, Sarah Earle, whom he eventually married. Shortly after their marriage, he became a preacher. He took up the temperance cause while studying anatomy and physiology. He continued lecturing with great success and was always well-received. During this early period, he wrote his works on chastity and began his interest in moral and social reform.

Life in the Early 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. 

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.

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. 

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

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

Through his lectures and writings, Graham launched a crusade for health and physiological reform. 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.

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.

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!

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. 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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The mission of the National Health Association is to educate and empower individuals to understand that health results from healthy living. We recognize the integration of all aspects of health: personal, environmental, and social.

We communicate the benefits of a plant-based diet, exercise and rest, a healthy environment, psychological well-being, and, when indicated, fasting.

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