In the fall of 1852, it seemed that all of London turned out in mourning dress for the funeral parade of Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington. The colossal procession, a long snake of black fabric, ostrich feathers, and horseflesh, took four and a half hours to wind its way through the city streets, and no expense had been spared. Six thousand new gaslights were installed at St. Paul's Cathedral for the occasion, and the body of the "Iron Duke" was carried on an ornate 10-ton funeral car studded with spears and streamers, his corpse nested in four coffins of pine, oak, lead, and mahogany. Tennyson's "Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington" sold like hotcakes for a shilling a copy, according to Cornelia D.J. Pearsall's Burying the Duke, as a million people crowded roads.
It was not just a funeral — it was an event. And it was all thanks to William Banting, a well-to-do London cabinetmaker and undertaker whose elaborate burials turned royal deaths into massive public spectacles. Banting, and his father before him, had prepared memorials for generations of British dignitaries, from King George to Lord Nelson, but despite the magnitude of these contributions to king and country, his name is remembered today not for the mahogany coffins and prancing stallions, but the fact that he became an unwitting diet guru.
Ten years after Wellington's funeral, after a long career burying kings and statesmen, Banting found himself newly retired and deeply unhappy. This was because, in August of 1862, then in his mid-60s, he stood just shy of five and a half feet tall and weighed 202 pounds.
"Of all the parasites that affect humanity," he wrote in his "Letter on Corpulence," "I do not know of, nor can I imagine, any more distressing than that of Obesity."
Banting's frustrations seem all too familiar to many today who struggle with weight loss. No one in his family was inclined to be overweight, he noted, and he kept what he considered a reasonable level of physical activity. Noticing the number on the scale begin to creep up in his mid-30s, he consulted a doctor friend, who recommended some stout exercise. Neither willpower nor planning was a problem for a man who routinely organized royal ceremonials. Mr. Banting went to the Thames every morning and rowed his heart out in a good, steady boat, but while this caused him to gain strength and fitness, it also made him want to eat a horse.
"I was compelled to indulge," Banting admitted, "and consequently increased in weight, until my kind old friend advised me to forsake the exercise."
Banting tried every diet and lifestyle fad available in the middle 19th century: walks by the seaside to take in fresh air, caustic medicines and laxatives, "taking the waters" in favorable locations, Turkish baths, riding horseback, and so restricting his food intake that he likened it to living on pennies a day. One doctor advised "vapor-baths and shampooing" to work up a sweat.
Nothing seemed to swing the scale more than a few pounds, and at a time when trim gentlemen could be found in the press openly complaining about too many fat men on the London bus lines, the "sneers and remarks of the cruel and injudicious in public" couldn't help but get through.
This wasn't just a value judgment equating size with personal failure, either. In fact, Banting wrote, if a larger person managed to eat, drink, and sleep well, and was free of pain or disease, more power to him. Most physicians considered gradual weight gain simply a part of the privilege of growing older in the 19th century. Banting, rather, felt he was being cut off from a full life, from access to public spaces and "advantages to health and comfort."
By 1862, Banting was plainly in a bad way. He couldn't reach his own shoes to tie them in the morning. Prone to light-headedness, he would go down stairs backward — wheezing and teetering slowly with each step — in order to minimize stress on his ankles and knees. He held in a painful hernia with a tight truss, and his vision and hearing were starting to suffer.
All of this changed when Banting visited Dr. William Harvey.
Harvey, an acquaintance of Charles Dickens', was then known as an ear surgeon. Banting was trying to get help with his hearing loss, and had not been scared away from doctors entirely — despite the fact that his previous physician had treated the condition by sponging his ears internally, causing them to blister externally, and then promptly leaving town on vacation.
Harvey had recently attended a medical conference where the physician — Claude Bernard, known today for his work on the body's natural state of equilibrium — had discussed metabolism as it might affect diabetes management. Inspired, Harvey decided to think beyond his patient's ears.
Dr. Harvey urged his client to follow a new diet that de-emphasized starchy or sweet foods, which he believed tended to create fat. Banting, who was used to lavishly buttered toast, beer, meat, and pastries on a regular daily rotation, grumbled that there would hardly be anything left in the world for him to eat, so the doctor drafted him a meal plan.
Read the rest of this story at Narratively.