History Today New Year Sale

Allinson's Staff of Life - Health Without Medicine in the 1890s

Sarah Pepper investigates a medical pioneer whose name survives today on a bread wrapper, but whose sweeping system of wholefoods and natural prescriptions offended the medical establishment of late Victorian England.

"Wholemeal Bread"; caricature of Allinson in Vanity Fair, 4 October 1911The story of fin de siecle science is one of inspiring innovation and vigorous progress. During the 1890s, physics alone witnessed the discovery of the X-ray, the electron and radioactivity. Yet medicine, with the exception of psychoanalysis, allowed itself to stagnate at a time when urban overcrowding and poverty ensured continuing high levels of morbidity and premature mortality. Whilst achieving some notable successes (such as smallpox vaccination) doctors continued frequently to misdiagnose, and to exacerbate conditions by applying inappropriate (and occasionally dangerous) treatments.

Despite this, by the turn of the century the medical establishment found itself newly professionalised and in a position of influence which it fought jealously to maintain. It was perhaps for this reason that the British medical authorities became intolerant of challenges to orthodox doctrines. As F.B. Smith notes, 'The quest for respectability served to narrow clinical practice and the medical imagination', and by the 1890s, the profession had 'closed ranks'.

During this period, consultant specialists began playing a prominent role in medical practice and, as the establishment moved increasingly towards introverted specialisation, it became clear to some that widespread ill health needed to be addressed at a more fundamental level. Urban overcrowding, malnutrition, filth and pollution were beginning to be tackled by legislation, but a significant number of individuals and groups were looking to a more radical solution.

To continue reading this article you will need to purchase access to the online archive.

Buy Online Access  Buy Print & Archive Subscription

If you have already purchased access, or are a print & archive subscriber, please ensure you are logged in.

Please email digital@historytoday.com if you have any problems.



Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week