Obesity, or, Excessive corpulence: the various causes and the rational means of cure
January 10, 1864
The physician has a twofold duty to perform. He is called upon not merely to alleviate pain, and to undertake the cure of disease, but he is, moreover, required to lay down rules for the preservation of health, the prevention of disease, and its too frequent concomitant, pain.
Now, health being dependent upon the due and regular performance of the vital functions by the several physiological organs of the body, any excessive development of these organs, or undue manifestation of force on their part, must, of necessity, be contrary to the general health of the body, and be productive of disease and pain.
In many persons there exists a constitutional tendency to the excessive formation of blood, occasioning a plethoric condition, and thereby rendering the individual liable to a great many diseases; others again suffer from an exalted or diminished sensibility of the nervous system, inducing some of the greatest woes to which humanity is liable.
Many different elements are combined in the structure of the various organs of the body, and among these fat, in suitable proportion, must be recognized as necessary for the due and equable performance of the several organic functions.
This fat, however, often becomes excessive, giving rise at first to great inconvenience, after a time inducing debility, and finally constituting a disease (hitherto deemed incurable) termed obesity.
The possession of a graceful figure may be of little importance, in so far as the happiness of most men is concerned; but as regards the gentler sex, such is by no means the case. Women are too apt to believe that, in the absence of physical beauty, the possession of mental and worldly treasures can only suffice to render them endurable in their social relations. Beauty, the richest gift of nature, deserves to be carefully guarded by those who happily possess it; corpulence, its enemy, is destructive to the finest organization.
It is a painful sight to witness the many instances of women, who, though still of youthful years, and whose elegance of form, but a short time since, did but enhance their unsurpassed loveliness of countenance, lose by degrees, in the midst of an overwhelming fat, all this relative and graceful harmony, and whose ever increasing corpulence serves only to render them ill-favoured and repulsive. In all cases, so detrimental a change is much to be regretted; but for ladies mingling in the fashionable spheres of life, it is to be borne only when such a condition can be shewn to be utterly beyond all hope of relief.
Excessive corpulence has destroyed the prospects of many, both men and women, by rendering them incompetent to discharge the duties of a profession by which they had hitherto gained an honourable livelihood. Superabundance of fat prevents an infantry officer from following his regiment—a cavalry officer from being long on horseback; and thus both are alike compelled to retire from the service. The operatic artiste, whose voice or personal beauty had been hitherto a mine of wealth to the theatre, falls into indigence, because an excessive development of fat now embarrasses the lungs or destroys her personal charms.
Every one engaged in intellectual pursuits will say that since he has increased in fat he finds that he cannot work so easily as he did when he was thin. The painter feels the want of that vivid imagination which was wont to guide his brush. The sculptor labours with indifference upon the marble. The literary man feels heavy, and his ideas no longer flow in obedience to his will. The clerk in his office is ever complaining of the efforts he is obliged to make to resist an overwhelming drowsiness which interferes with his calculating powers, rendering him unable to compose a letter, or even to copy one. Obesity, in fact, lessens both physical and moral activity, and unfits man for the ordinary business of life.
It was in conformity with this opinion, no doubt, that the Romans at one time, wishing to have no drones among them, banished those of their fellow citizens who laboured under an excessive development of fat. One can conceive of the existence of such a law among a people who condemned to a like punishment any citizen known to be indifferent to the public welfare.
We must admit, however, that it would be a grave error to assert that all persons suffering under an excess of fat are invariably wanting in the finer feelings, or even in moral energy. There are many living proofs to the contrary. But it is among women chiefly that we witness instances of great mental refinement and susceptibility, in union with a body steadily increasing to a lamentable size.
Moralists have written that obesity is a sign of egotism; of a good stomach, but of a bad heart; and many may be found to endorse the sentiment. Unhappily people are easily dazzled with high sounding words, and the sententious phrases of moralists. This is wrong; for if we take the trouble to adopt for a moment the opposite to that which they advance, we shall often find that this opposite is not void of reason. In support of this remark many reasons can be advanced why a fat person should have a good heart, and be endowed with most excellent qualities. Corpulence, it is true, usually indicates good digestive powers; but good digestion is not incompatible with goodness of heart. One who digests his food easily ought to be better disposed towards those around him, than the sickly creature labouring under dyspepsia. What amount of temper can be expected in those who daily experience pain in the stomach while the digestive process is going on? they can have no joyousness of heart, but must continually be in bad humour, too often seen in their contracted and jaundiced features. It is a great mental effort on their part to receive you with even a seeming cordiality. We may always accost a person with a degree of confidence, whose skin is gracefully spread over a sufficient layer of fat. I may be mistaken, but in my opinion we need not expect to meet in such persons great mental anxiety, or intense egotistical feelings.
Julius Cæsar was warned a few days before his assassination that an attempt would be made upon his life:—Antonius and Dolabella were accused of being the conspirators. "I have but little dread of those two men," said he, "they are too fat, and pay too much attention to their toilette; I should rather fear Brutus and Cassius, who are meagre and pale-faced." The end justified Cæsar's opinion.
With respect to lean persons, I shall not undertake to oppose the general opinion that a delicate organization is emblematic of a mind endowed with a great member of most precious and good qualities, frequently used with such energy, as by its very strength to be the cause of bodily weakness. But let us beware of entering the domain of Lavater, Gall and Spurzheim. We would rather say that the emblem of health is a sufficient but not too great rotundity of person—mens sana in corpore sano.