Cheyne, George

views updated Jun 08 2018

George Cheyne

Scottish physician George Cheyne (1671-1743) is best known as a pioneering, eighteenth–century advocate for vegetarianism. He wrote several books that covered topics such as nutrition, exercise, and depression. His most famous work, “An Essay on Health and Long Life” was published in 1725.

Scottish physician George Cheyne can be considered the “diet and exercise guru” of his day. His popular publications about vegetarianism and nutrition were essentially the “self–help” lifestyle guides for his contemporaries. Despite his eccentricities and own health problems, Cheyne offered his readers some lifestyle advice that comes across as prudent and reasonable even today. This is remarkable, especially considering that he practiced medicine in the eighteenth century.

Not much is known about Cheyne's early life, but this much has been ascertained: He was born in Aberdeenshire in Scotland in 1671 into a good family. His parents envisioned for him a career in the church. However, Cheyne possessed a naturally curious and studious disposition, so he chose to enter the medical profession instead.

Earned Medical Degree

In his early years, Cheyne benefited from a formal and liberal education, and he eventually developed into a young man of considerable and wide–ranging knowledge.

He attended medical school in Edinburgh in Scotland, studying under Doctor Pitcairne, a well–known physician of the time. Cheyne was greatly influenced by Pitcairne. Later, when he wrote his most famous work, “Essay on Health and Long Life,” he referred to Pitcairne in the preface as his “great master and generous friend.”

After earning his medical degree, Cheyne moved to London, England, when he was about thirty years old. In 1702, he established his own medical practice. As it was a common method among contemporary physicians, Cheyne often called on his patients in the taverns that they frequented. During this period in his life, Cheyne himself engaged in an indulgent lifestyle. He reportedly possessed a cheerful disposition and was an entertaining conversationalist. As such, he became a popular figure in London's nightlife. In his own words, according to Paul Collins of the New Scientist, he associated with “Bottle companions, the younger Gentry, and Free–Livers … nothing being necessary for that Purpose, but to be able to Eat lustily, and swallow down much Liquor.” Both of those Cheyne did quite well.

Indulgence Led to Poor Health

According to accounts, Cheyne consumed copious quantities of rich food and drink. But his lifestyle eventually took a physical toll, and his weight ballooned to more than four hundred pounds. Obese and unhealthy, he always felt short–winded and lethargic. In 1705, he nearly suffered an early death after a series of what Collins reported him naming “vertiginous Paroxysms.” Translated into modern terms, he came close to suffering a heart attack or stroke. As such, he was forced to abandon his careless and extravagant habits. To revive his failing health, he attempted a regimen of vomiting purges. Unsurprisingly, this did little to improve his health or relieve the depression he frequently suffered.

He endured in this state until the winter of 1707, when, acting on the advice of a medical colleague, he traveled to Croydon in England to visit a Dr. Taylor, who became well known for advocating a unique diet. When Cheyne first met Taylor, the diet doctor was taking a meal that consisted of nothing more than a quart of milk. Taylor explained to the astonished Cheyne that after consulting with London physicians about his own poor health, he decided to abstain from alcohol and meat. Amazingly, for seventeen years, Dr. Taylor's only sustenance was milk. Cheyne was quite impressed and subsequently gave up everything but milk and vegetables. He had theorized that the two food items were essentially the same. “Milk being Vegetables immediately cook'd by Animal Heat and Organs,” he explained and quoted by Collins.

In this way, Cheyne was able to start controlling his weight, and he began to feel better than he had for a long time. But when he tried to resume a more standard diet, he regained his weight and his health once again suffered. Thus, he went back to his vegetarian diet, which he adhered to for the rest of his life.

Reportedly, Cheyne's embracement of vegetarianism was also reinforced by the writings of Thomas Tryon, a self– taught philosopher and student of Protestant mysticism who died right around the time that Cheyne was first starting his medical practice. In 1691, Tryon had published a book, The Way to Health, that advocated a vegetarian diet. The work was very popular with educated people of the time. Benjamin Franklin had even been a “Tryonist” at one point in his life.

Revived Medical Practice

Reinvigorated, Cheyne re–established his medical practice in the famous spa town of Bath, England. He also began to put his health theories down on paper.

By the 1720s, Cheyne prospered as a physician in this fashionable setting. His clients were equally prosperous and included such well–known figures as poet Alexander Pope and the English novelist Samuel Richardson, who gained fame with early examples of the novel including Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded and Clarissa: Or the History of a Young Lady. Another famous patient was John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist religion. Like Cheyne, Wesley had embraced vegetarianism. In part because of Cheyne's influence, and the powerful rapport Cheyne developed with his famous patients, vegetarianism became a trendy lifestyle option among the literary elite of England.

All the while, Cheyne still struggled with his own weight problem. Also, he suffered from excruciating headaches and severe gout blisters that made his skin appear, as the New Scientist article that quoted Cheyne once described it “burnt almost like the Skin of a roasted Pig.” In addition, he was still plagued with bouts of depression.

Wrote Famous “Essay” on Health

Still, Cheyne was uplifted enough by his professional success that he felt compelled to write Essay of Health and Long Life, a 1724 publication that extolled the virtues of a vegetarian diet. It would become his most famous and influential work. The book went through six reprints in its first year, and it was translated into French, Dutch, Latin and Italian.

Cheyne based the book on his own professional and personal experiences, rather than existing medical literature. “I have consulted nothing but my own Experience and Observation in my own crazy Carcase and the Infirmities of others I have treated,” he wrote in the preface of Essay of Health and Long Life. Departing from the contemporary conventional medical wisdom, Cheyne averred in the work that good health depended upon five critical components: diet, ample rest, exercise, plenty of fresh air and purgative vomiting. His recommendations included abstinence from red meat and alcohol (except for a moderate intake of wine); a diet consisting of milk, vegetables, poultry and mineral water; and an early–to–bed (10 p.m.), early–to–rise (6 a.m.) sleep schedule. As for dietary specifics, he suggested eating half a chicken a day and avoiding foods that were smoked, pickled or spicy. Recommended foods include plain portions of beans, oats, rice and potatoes. Further, Cheyne highly approved of green tea and disapproved of chocolate– flavored drinks, which he believed provoked “a false and hysterical appetite.”

Exercise was an extremely important part of his health regimen. Cheyne felt that, with England's increasing urbanization, people were not getting enough physical activity, particularly academics and people who worked at sedentary desk jobs. “The Studious and the Contemplative … must make Exercise a Part of their Religion,” he said, as quoted by Collins. As such, he recommended something called the “chamber horse,” essentially an early example of indoor exercise equipment. Basically, it was a chair built with an elevated seat that moved by spring action. Users placed themselves on the seat, gripped the chair arms and vigorously bounced up and down. Surprisingly enough, this device became very popular, and physicians continued prescribing it for a century.

Ironically, as Cheyne's famous essay was being prepared for publication, he suffered a relapse into his old drinking and eating habits. The backsliding behavior almost caused his death.

Essay Created Controversy

Cheyne's work generated controversy among medical colleagues, particularly among his fellow members of the Royal Society of London, where the Essay of Health and Long Life became a hot topic of debate. Medical professionals also were uneasy about Cheyne's popularity with his followers and its implications. They felt that health matters were too complex to be left in patients' own hands.

One Royal Society physician gave Cheyne the disparaging nickname of “Dr. Diet.” Soon after Cheyne's book was published, a pamphlet appeared that accused Cheyne of offering bad medical device to promote his practice. However, not all physicians were critical: Dr. William Lambe concurred with Cheyne's ideas on vegetarianism and commented (as found in Vibrant Life) that “the use of the flesh of animals is a deviation from the laws of [mankind's] nature, and is universally a cause of disease and premature death.”

Despite criticisms launched against it, Cheyne's book remained popular with the public, and it stayed in print for almost fifty years after its initial release.

Other Writings

In addition to that popular work, Cheyne had published previous papers on fevers, gout, hygiene and mathematics. At Dr. Pitcairne's request, he wrote “A new Theory of Acute and Slow continued Fevers; wherein, besides the appearances of such, and the manner of their cure, occasionally, the structure of the glands, and the Manner and Laws of Secretion, the operation of purgative, vomitive, and mercurial medicines, are mechanically explained.” Pitcairne wanted to produce such a work himself, but he was far too busy with his own practice and teaching duties, so he encouraged Cheyne to write it. Though the work was well received, it was put together rather hurriedly, and Cheyne did not think the finished product was worthy of his name.

In 1715, Cheyne wrote “Philosophical Principles of Natural Religion,” a work that combined spirituality with natural science. In it, Cheyne advanced the idea that life could not spring forth from inorganic matter; rather, it “must of necessity have existed from all eternity.” The work was dedicated to the Earl of Roxburgh, and it is believed that Cheyne wrote it at his request. During this period, Cheyne also wrote “An Essay of the True Nature and Due Method of treating the Gout, together with an account of the Nature and Quality of the Bath Waters,” which was reprinted in five editions.

In 1733, Cheyne wrote a book about depression, The English Malady, or a Treatise on Nervous Diseases of all kinds, as Spleen, Vapours, Lowness of Spirits, Hypochondriacal and hysterical Distempers, that described his own emotional bouts of melancholy and anxiety that troubled him for a large part of his life. In the work, Cheyne argued that such emotional turmoil only affected highly intelligent individuals, as “fools, weak or stupid Persons … are seldom troubled with Vapours or Lowness of Spirits.” The work also described his own digestive troubles.

Cheyne published his last work, “The Natural Method of Curing the Diseases of the Body, and the Disorders of the Mind attending on the Body,” in 1740. This very popular study of nutrition and natural living was dedicated to the Earl of Chesterfield, who was Cheyne's friend and correspondent. The book was so popular that it went into its third edition as early as 1742, the year before Cheyne died.

Died in England

Cheyne passed away on April 12 in 1743 in Bath. He was seventy–one years old. His advanced age was somewhat surprising, considering his weight problems. At the time of his death, however, he was completely sound of mind and in relatively reasonable sound physical health.

Cheyne's works on diet and health remained popular long after his death, and people continued reading his books for more than a century. Indeed, his “Essay of Health and Long Life” remained in print until 1834.

Cheyne became known as one of the founding fathers of modern vegetarianism. His work was often cited by vegetarians as well as animal–rights activists, who liked to quote one of Cheyne's passages in particular, which is found on the Web site: “To see the convulsions, agonies and tortures of a poor fellow–creature, whom they cannot restore nor recompense, dying to gratify luxury and tickle callous and rank organs, must require a rocky heart, and a great degree of cruelty and ferocity. I cannot find any great difference between feeding on human flesh and feeding on animal flesh, except custom and practice.”

During his life, not all of the ideas that Cheyne advanced or embraced survived beyond their time. For instance, Cheyne considered himself one of the “Iatro– mechanists,” who developed the concept of “iatro– mathematics,” a rather strange pseudo–science that blended the principles of Newtonian physics and astrology into medicine.

Through his health books, however, Cheyne did advance the notion of preventive medicine, a concept that is now accepted by virtually every modern healthcare professional. That appears to be Cheyne's greatest legacy.


New Scientist, October 7, 2006.

Vibrant Life, May–June, 1992.


“Anxiety–panic History,”, (November 25, 2007).

“George Cheyne,”, (November 25, 2007).

“George Cheyne (1671–1743),” Christian Vegetarian Association, (November 25, 2007).

“Significant Scots–George Cheyne,” Electric, (November 25, 2007).

Cheyne, George

views updated May 17 2018

Cheyne, George

(b. Aberdeenshire, Scotland, 1671; d. Bath, England, 12 April 1743),

medicine, mathematics, theology

At first educated for the ministry, Cheyne was influenced by the Scottish iatromechanist Archibald Pitcairn to take up medicine instead. He studied with Pitcairn in Ediburgh and then, in 1702, moved to London, where he joined the Royal Society and established a medical practice. Cheyne was soon an at least peripheral member of a prominent circle of medical and scientific writers that included the astronomers David Gregory and Edmund Halley and the Physicians Richard Mead and John Arbuthnot. He spent several active years in London, winning a major reputaion also as a wit and drinking companion in the tavern and coffeehouse set. Some years later, probably by 1720, he renounced his earlier life and moved permanently to Bath as a sober and dedicated medical practitioner. Cheyne spent the major part of his last decades advising his patients and corrpondents (the novelist Samuel Richardson, for one) to lives of sober and pious moderation, while conveying his general precepts to the public in a series of popular medical tracts. Through these later works he becme one of England’s most widely read medical writers.

Cheyne’s intellectual career was divided into two phases. During the first, which concided with his association with Pitcairn in Scotland and his early years in London, he was a principal representative of British “Newtonianism” in its many cultural facests. His first book, A New Theory of Fevers(1702), was an elaborate, quasi-mathematical explication of febrile phenomena in terms of Pitcairn’s supposeldy “mathematical” and “Newtonian” variety of iatromechanism. Cheyne followed Pitacairn in positing a theory of the “animal economy” based on a view of the body as a system of pipes and fluids, and, in fact, he called for the composition of a Principia medicinae throreticae mathematica, Which would treat such topics as the hydraulies of circulation and the elastic behavior of vascular walls with the same mathematical rigor that Newton applied to celestical mechanics.

In 1703 Cheyne followed his call for medical mathematicization with a treatise of his own on Newton style mathematics, the Fluxionum methodus inversa A work on the calculus of dubious mathematical validity (David Gregory counted 429 errors), the Fluxionum brought Cheyne more anguish than positive reputation. Abranham de Moivre responded with a thorough refutation, and the great Newton himself-so Gregory claimed-was sufficiently provoked to publish his work on “quadraures” in the 1704 edition of the Opticks.

Cheyne pressed ahead nevertheless, in 1705 turning his attention to the theological significance of Newtonian science. In Philosophical Principles of Natural Religion, along with several other arguments for the existence and continued superientendence of the Deity, he claimed that the observed phenomena of attraction in the universe argued for a Supreme Being. Since attraction was not a property essential to the mere being of brute and passive matter, its very occurence, whether in planetary gravitaion or in the simple cohesion of terrestrial materials, therefore gave immediate testimony to the hand of God in designing and maintaining the universe. Cheyne’s argument proved very popular with his contemporaries, perhaps somewhat impressing even Newton. Sir Isaac included a discussion of the phenomena of attraction in the new and lengthy twenty-third “Query” to the 1706 edition of his Opticks (famous as the thirty-first “Query” of later editions) that seems to reflect of some Cheyne’s examples and vocabulary. Cheyne at least thought so, for according to an entry in Gregory’s Memoranda, “Dr. Chyne uses to say among his Chronys that all the additions (made by S Isaac to his book of Light and Colurs in the latin version) were stolen from him."

In the second phase of his intellectual career, which coincided with his residence at Bath, Cheyne repudiated his youthful mathematical brashness and excessive Newtonian enthusiasm. Although he never gave up his intense interest in philosophical and theological speculations or even in Newtonian science, in the works composed while practicing at Bath, Cheyne turned his attention largely to medical subjects. In 1720 he published An Essay on the Gout, in 1724 An Essay of Health and Long Life, in 1747 An Essay on Reginmen, and in 1742 The Natural Methods of Cureing the Diseases of the Body and the Disorders of the Body All these treatises were essentially practical guides that placed considerable emphasis on the medical wisdom of moderation in diet and drink. But Cheyne also devoted some space in each of these books to phiosophical and theological issues. In medical theory, for example, he was much committed to directing attention from the body’s fluids to its fibrous solids, his uncited guide in this matter almost certainly being the influential Leiden professor Hermann Boerhaave.

Cheyne’s most elaborate development of his views on the bodily fibers was contained in the treatise De natura fibrae (1725). He was simultaneously concerned with the relationship between the immaterial, musician-like soul and the material, instrument-like body. Although opinions on this subject can be found in all his later writings, the most extensive account of his views was contained in The English Malady (1733). Through his later medical works generally, and especially through these last two, Cheyne seems to have aroused much interest in Britain in further investigation of the bodily fibers and in exploration of the metaphysical relationship of mind and body.


Cheyne’s principal writings have been mentioned above; no complete edition of his works exists. For useful biographical and bibliographical summaries that emphasize the later medical writings, see “George Cheyne,” in Dictionary of National Biography and charles F. Mullet, introduction to The of Dr. George Cheyne to the Countess of Huntingdon (san Marino, Calif., 1940) The best source for Cheyne’s early activities as a “Newtonian” is W. G. Hiscock’s edition of Gregory’s Memoranda, publisdhed as David Gregory, Isaac Newton and Their Circle (Oxford, (1937). For an interesting summary of Cheyne’s theological views, see Helene Metzger Attraction universelle et religion naturelle chez quelques commentateurs anglais de Newton (Paris, 1938). General summaries of some of Cheyne’s medical theories can be found in Albrecht von Haller, Bibliotheca medicinae practicae, IV (Basel, 1788), 435–438; kurt Sprengel, Histoire de la medecine, V (Paris, 1815), 167–170; and charles Daremberg, Histoire des sciences medicales, II (Paris, 1870), 1207–1214.

Theodore M. Brown

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George Cheyne