Validating medicinal and nutritional information

when Every(wo)man was their own doctor

Nathalie Cooke


Every Man His Own Doctor was a popular British guide to household health published in 1727 and its title aptly depicted the situation of most households in Europe and the Americas until the general adoption of germ theories of disease at the very end of the nineteenth century, which coincided generally speaking with the emergence of specialized medical practitioners and emergent knowledge surrounding vitamins and a unit of energy dubbed the ‘calorie.’ Not only was every man his own doctor, but each housewife shouldered the responsibility for the health of her family. Cookbooks through to 1900 included sections on sickroom cookery and medicinal remedies; many later cookbooks began including notes on what were described as ‘protective foods.’ Information was recorded and shared both in printed books and shared manuscripts. What were the sources of medicinal remedies? How could a woman come to trust the remedies such books contained? How might she verify its efficacy?

This paper will address such questions through close scrutiny of examples of three fundamental genres of historical cookbooks, and the authority they claim for the information they provide.

First: the manuscript receipt book. This one written in England by at least four different individuals over a series of generations, between 1741 and 1848. Along with recipes for fare typical of the period, it offers remedies for various ailments, among them cholera, cancer, coughs and inflammations, and my personal favourite, insanity. Poignantly, the cause of ‘Ergotism,’ which was then known as St Anthony’s Fire and causes hallucinations, the feeling of being burned, and gangrenous extremities to fall off was discovered in 1853, just five years after the last entry in this book, and likely 40 or so years after the suggested remedy – and it would have been a palliative remedy rather than a cure– was written into it. Precisely because it is written over successive generations as emergent medicinal knowledge comes to light, the book contains edits and comments on the remedies and recipes of the past. It also claims authority by providing precise information about the sources of information, sometimes specific dates and, most unusually, some detailed narratives about how the remedies worked.

Next: the guidebook. This one for female settlers to Canada published in 1855, describing life in Canada’s backwoods. What is particularly interesting is the medicinal knowledge gleaned by settlers through close observance of indigenous foodways. It claims authority through the author’s astute observational skills and cumulative experience gathered from friends, relatives and neighbours.

Finally: the textbook. Specifically here those written for classes being introduced in the early decades of the 20th century for the new science of Home Economics. They insist on the importance of good hygiene (which attests to the growing consensus around germ theories of disease) a balanced diet (evidence of emerging insights in nutrition), and their successive editions point to specific instances of emergent knowledge in the fields of medicine and nutrition.