What is the historical impact of Sylvester Graham's Lectures on the Science of Human Life?

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Sylvester Graham (1794-1851) was a Presbyterian minister who was a staunch proponent of abstinence, temperance, and vegetarianism.  So committed was Graham to his principles that he dedicated his life to preaching the benefits of a vegetarian diet and the importance of refraining from sexual activity and the consumption of alcohol as the key to good health and spirituality.  Graham firmly believed that poor dietary practices contributed to sexual urges and masturbation that were antithetical to the teachings of the Bible.  Among his targets was the process by which bakeries began injecting chemicals into flour for the purpose of lightening both the texture and the color of bread – a process with roots in elitist notions of racial superiority, as “white” bread was viewed by many as being more refined and sophisticated than brown, whole wheat breads that were not similarly subjected to manipulation that detracted from the bread’s nutritional value.  His development of the “Graham cracker” was a product of his efforts at instilling more healthful dietary habits into his congregation – a congregation that diminished considerably when Graham himself passed away at the relative early age of 57.

Graham’s greatest literary contribution was his series of lectures that were published in book-form under the title Lectures on the Science of Human Life, considered the philosophical foundation for the development of veganism.  While Graham was widely ridiculed for his views on abstinence and temperance, his studies of nutrition were entirely credible and remain valued for their insights on nutrition and the underlying causes of diseases – which he felt was a neglected area of study relative to the wealth of data accumulated on the treatment of illness.  As Graham noted in his lectures:

“Everything is done with a view to cure disease, without any regard to its cause . . . Therefore, in the progress of the healing art thus far, not a step is taken towards investigating the laws of health and the philosophy of disease. . . The result is, that when men prodigally waste the resources as if the energies of life were inexhaustible; and when they have brought on disease which destroys their comforts, they fly to the physician, not to learn by what violation of the laws of life they have drawn the evil upon themselves, and by what means they can avoid the same; but, considering themselves visited with afflictions which they have in no manner been concerned in causing, they require the physician’s remedies, by which their sufferings may be alleviated.”

Graham’s lectures cannot be ignored for the solid scientific conclusions they provided regarding the connection between diet and health.  More than 100 years later, his findings remain valid.  His suggestion that consumption of meat and dairy products leads to promiscuity may be treated with minimal seriousness; his comments regarding diet and health, however, should be respected.