Although fasting has been practiced by both man and animals since the origin of life on earth and there has never been a time within this period when it has not been employed, the professional use of the fast in sickness in this country dates from 1822, in which year Isaac Jennings, M.D. began to employ it. In 1830 Sylvester Graham began to advocate fasting. From that period to this it has been extensively employed in this country, both by Hygienists and by others. It has also been employed extensively in Europe; but in what follows, I shall confine myself to a discussion of its employment by Hygienists in America.
With the exception of Graham, the men whose experiences and statements I shall discuss were medical men, almost all of them being or having been members of one or the other of four medical professions existing in this country during the last century. A few of them were graduates of the College of Hygeo-Therapy. The drug-medical graduates quoted are men who had forsaken drugs and were practicing Hygienically or largely so. The general attitude of these men towards drugs may be well summed up in the words of George H. Taylor, M.D., who wrote: (Journal, April 1857) "I have not a shadow of faith in the remedial virtues of drugs, of whatever name or nature, by whosoever administered."
Fasting, which is entire abstinence from all food but water, is a definite physiological or biological procedure that is adopted by the animal kingdom under a wide variety of circumstances; but we are here primarily interested in its employment in a state of illness. Trall stressed the fact that nothing is remedial except those conditions which economize the expenditure of the forces of the sick organism. When the overtaxed, satiated and surfeited system rebels against its abuses, what is more logical than the other extreme of abstinence or spare diet and water, such as Adam and Eve quaffed when cigars and quids were unheard of? This permits the relaxed and prostrated digestive organs to rally and restore their functioning powers. The irritableness and fretfulness of the sick, so commonly observed under conventional care, is reduced to a minimum when the patient fasts. After such a period of repose, the stomach regains its tone, the heart its usual healthy action, and the blood courses cheerily through its vessels.
Frequent references to fasting were carried by the Graham Journal of Health and Longevity and much benefit was described as flowing from the practice. Fasting was consistently advocated in the Graham Journal during the whole three years of its publication, 1837-38-39. We have no specific evidence that Graham's advocacy of fasting was based upon the findings of Beaumont, but we do have frequent references to these findings in support of their fasting practices. For example, a writer in the Graham Journal of September 19, 1837, points out that Beaumont found that when his experimental subject suffered with fever, little or no gastric juice was secreted and that food only served as a source of irritation to that organ and, consequently, to the whole organism. No solvent (digestive juice), said Beaumont, can be secreted under these circumstances; hence, food is as insoluble in the stomach as would be lead under ordinary circumstances.
Beaumont declared that food would lay in the stomach of Alexis St. Martin when he was ill for periods ranging from six to 32 or 40 hours, unchanged except for fermentation and putrefaction. Beaumont's findings have since been repeatedly verified by physiologists. Such facts indicate the importance of withholding food in acute disease; but Graham refers to fasting in cases of tumor and other chronic conditions, thus indicating that in what Dr. Felix Oswald called the "Graham starvation cure," the fasting practice was not confined to acute illnesses. Graham's statements regarding fasting and its employment in various conditions indicate a wide familiarity with the fast and observations and experiences that reach far beyond what would seem at first glance to have been his.
Writing September 16, 1859, a physician living in upstate New York accused Hygienists of starving their patients to death. This accusation indicates that the use of the fast, while general among Hygienists, was as little understood by physicians of the period as by those of today. The fear of starvation has been instilled into us by the medical profession for a long time.
Discussing the fast that an acutely ill child was undergoing, Dr. Jennings said: "There is now little action of the system generally, and consequently, there is but little wear and tear of machinery; and like the dormouse, it might subsist for months on its own internal resources, if that were necessary, and everything else favored. The bowels too have been quiet for a number of days, and they might remain as they are for weeks and months to come without danger, if this were essential to the prolongation of life. The muscles of voluntary motion are at rest and cost nothing for their maintenance, save a slight expenditure of safekeeping forces to hold them in readiness for action at any future time if their services are needed. So of all the other parts and departments; the most perfect economy is everywhere exercised in the appropriation and use of the vital energies."
The prostration here pictured is characteristic of serious acute disease and results from the fact that the body marshals all of its energies, resources and attentions in the remedial work and suspends all activities that can be temporarily dispensed with while more urgently needed work is carried on. Prostration may come on suddenly. A man may be plowing in the field and feeling well and collapse suddenly and have to be carried into the house and put to bed. This does not represent a sudden loss of energy, but a sudden withdrawal of energies and resources from temporarily dispensable functions. In chronic disease, there is rarely such profound prostration; but there is always a need for conservation of energy and a period of physiological rest is advantageous.
Writing in the Journal, August 1850, Dr. Kittredge of Boston says that during the 12 years prior thereto, he began the "hunger cure" in his practice, remarking that he got the idea from "somebody's common sense." It is probable that this common sense was imparted to him by some of the Grahamites. Kittredge tells of fasts of seven, 21 and 22 days in acute disease and says that "in every case I had every reason in the world to believe that they not only got well quicker, but suffered infinitely less during the fever and got their strength up much better afterward than they would have done if they had taken gruel, &c., daily." In an editorial in the Journal, May 1851, in which Dr. Trall discussed Extractum Carnis (a flesh extract, developed by a German physician), he said that fever patients under allopathic care "are usually so dosed with beef soup, mutton tea, chicken broth, &c., that the febrile irritation is kept up and aggravated by the slop-dieting, when the stomach really needs entire abstinence from all food." Then, explaining the benefits reported to flow from the use of Extractum Carnis, he says: "Dr. Beneke, on the mistaken notion that his carnal extract is immensely nutritious, gives very little of it, and so the patient is scarcely injured at all. While the doctor intends to diet the patient strongly, the patient really gets almost a fast."