Honest Abe, Cholera, and Fruits and Veggies
I am reading Team of Rivals right now, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Abraham Lincoln by the eminent historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. The book tells the story of the four rivals for the presidency Lincoln brought in after he was elected the 16th President of the United States. Part of Lincoln’s singular genius was that instead of allowing them to be his enemies, he opened his heart and life to them, gave them opportunities, and allowed them to lead.
I know everyone loves Honest Abe, but I always felt like he was “my” president, as I share his birthday. I’m one of his adoring fans and am fascinated by everything about him. When I was a little girl, I read so many biographies and stories about him that I once got in an argument with another kid about whether I had actually literally KNOWN him, as I was insisting.
It’s painful to read the details of how he lost his mother when he was only 9, of “milk sickness,” and his heart broke. She was the reason for his brilliance and goodness, as his father has been described by historians as common, unambitious, and itinerant. Then, Abe’s only sister died when he was 19. And finally, his first love died while she was in college, in a viral epidemic.
In this epic 900-page biography, the lives of the four rivals emerge. All of them suffered devastating personal losses. One lost three wives, and a few daughters, and then just refused to marry again.
Of the four rivals, only Edward Bates seems to have sailed through the 19th century with strong health and little loss. Bates was an attorney and a political leader who both owned slaves and was a champion of the anti-slavery movement.
He lived to be an old man. His wife lived to be old. They had 17 children, and from what I can gather, all of them lived! For that time period, this is nearly unheard of.
As I was reading about epidemics of cholera and smallpox and many other tragedies, I’d just formed the question in my head, “Why did the Bates family remain unscathed?” In 1849, a great fire in the town they lived in reduced the commercial section of the city to rubble, and cholera epidemic killed more than 100 per day, with hearses rolling through the muddy streets all day and night.
No one in the Bates family became ill. Just after I was puzzling over this, I read that Edward Bates’ journal reports that his family pulled through “in perfect health” because they rejected the prevailing opinion of the day, to avoid fruits and vegetables. He agonized in his lengthy journal about medical ignorance and the way doctors perpetually changed their opinions and had no consensus on treatment.
How much has changed now? Well, we have consensus, at least. For the most part, medicine has swung the other direction: codified insurance codes dictate everything a doctor can (and can’t) do. Of course, there are the gray areas, where because nothing in medicine works, there’s scattershot approaches, such as the 28 different chemotherapy cocktails for breast cancer (since none work).
Since Bates’ time, doctors have abandoned blood-letting and other bad techniques and advice, based on bad theories. Now we have a slavish love of chemicals to replace leeches.
I love that while doctors didn’t advise it then, eating raw plant foods was common sense 275 years ago. Long before Dr. Joel Fuhrman reviewed hundreds of studies and said that there is more empirical evidence that eating plants prevent disease, than there is evidence that smoking causes lung cancer.
(In 1849, nobody was clear on that fact, either, obviously.)
People like Bates who lived on farms, with ample access to fresh vegetables and fruits, had low disease risk. Now people who live on farms have among the highest cancer risk, due to chemicals we spray on our food as it grows.
How many people spend an entire lifetime following bad counsel? My mother believed that infant formula was better than breast milk. That’s what the pediatrician told her. So that’s what I was fed, followed by meat dinners.
Isn’t it a tragedy that 275 years ago, people were dying because they were being told not to eat greens, vegetables, and fruits?
Food is common sense. It’s simple, historical, and easy to understand.