Let Them Eat (Less) Cake!

Samuel Auguste Tissot, Von den Krankheiten vornehmer und reicher Personen an Höfen und in großen Städten. Aus dem Französischen übersetzt von Dr. Johann Lorenz Drechsler.

Published by the Felseckische Buchhandlung (Frankfurt and Leipzig), 1771

 

Health is cult nowadays. And it is not perceived as a God-given fate but rather a result of the way a person organises their every-day life. In this context it is often repeated that those who strive for health should live in tune with nature as much as possible – despite the fact that in our highly civilised present, which has lost all connection to the plant- and animal kingdom, our average lifespan is longer than ever before. All of this despite the fact that a person from Antiquity or the Middle Ages surely spent their life closer to nature than we could ever achieve with health food shops and buying organic.

One man that inspired this movement was the Swiss doctor Samuel Auguste Tissot (1728-1797), who spent most of his life in Lausanne and who was very famous at the time. He was notorious for his publications against masturbation. Another one of his books about the diseases of noble and rich people at courts or in big cities had a similar if not bigger impact. He spoke out against the unhealthy lifestyle of the aristocracy and its imitators who, despite the best medical care, did not live much longer than the common population.

While the Genevan Jean Jaques Rousseau made his call “Back to Nature”, Tissot demanded that the rich and the beautiful should think about their eating habits. Those masses of meat, sweets, coffee, tea and alcohol, they were consuming on a daily basis could not be healthy by any stretch of the imagination. And the corsets, too, not only worn by women at the time to simulate a small waist, this “whalebone’s constraint” was not good for people’s health. After all, they were compressing the stomach and the intestines.

 

 

We have this book right here. And probably no one would disagree with Dr. Tissot’s key arguments. His contemporaries already agreed with him. Just as they thought his theses in “Anleitung für das Landvolk in Absicht auf seine Gesundheit” (“Instruction for the peasantry to their health” in translation) to be right. After all, they matched the ideas of the Enlightenment. Tissot challenged superstition, he was in favour of hygiene and vaccinations and he had solutions for the spreading decline in population in rural areas.

Tissot became famous with his publications. They were translated into almost 20 languages and they were not just read by the intellectual elite, but also by the rulers. The King of Poland invited him to come to Poland. The Prince-Elector of Hanover, the Prince of Württemberg and the Margrave of Hesse-Kassel wanted to lure him into their realms, too. Emperor Joseph II paid him a personal visit. And Napoleon wrote him a letter of appreciation. Dr. Tissot ought to be the most influential physician of his generation. He became the pioneer of the state’s role in the public health care system by making it the politicians’ task to take responsibility for the uneducated masses’ health.

Whenever politicians have discussions nowadays as to how much influence a person’s lifestyle should have on their individual health insurance charge, we are doubly in his tradition: Firstly because public health has become an issue of the state and secondly because we feel responsible for our own health due to our own lifestyle.