Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

William Alcott and the cultural meaning of medical knowledge in the nineteenth century

Catherine Mas
Chicago, Illinois, USA

Alcott, The House I Live in, 21

William Alcott (1798–1859) thought of himself as a medical missionary. He devoted most of his life’s work to spreading the nascent knowledge of anatomy and physiology infused with the message of Christian fulfillment. As a reformer and author of over 100 books, he wrote much on the subject of health, and he is widely known for co-founding the vegetarian movement with Sylvester Graham in the mid-1850s. Scientific progress, economic change, social instability, and a market revolution characterized the society Alcott inhabited, but the cultural values of Christianity remained constant amidst this society in flux.

In the context of a variable social structure, Alcott believed access to knowledge of anatomy and physiology provided all with the universal means to fulfilling Christian duty and achieving perfection. Born into a poor family of farmers in Connecticut, he broke from his yeoman background to become a schoolteacher and later a physician and prolific writer on the subject of health. Alcott used descriptive anatomy in his writings not only to present the material in terms accessible to the common people, but also to establish his conception of the human body in relation to Christian duty. His emphasis on obedience to the laws he laid out—both laws of health and laws of social conduct—demonstrated his idea that one could follow a path towards perfection by obeying both physical and moral laws.

Alcott did not possess the resources to immediately pursue his childhood ambitions, but his class status did not hinder his passion for knowledge: “My father was a poor laborer, and thought himself unable either to give me any extra opportunities of education, or to spare me from the cultivation of a few paternal acres. Still, in secret, I clung to the hope of one day traversing the lengths and breadths and depths and heights of the world of science.”1 Although a social hierarchy necessarily existed, Alcott believed the individual possessed the self-determination to improve his position. With deep moral grounds, the young Alcott pledged to study science, not as an end in itself, but rather as a means to accomplish greater good. Later on, his writings on anatomy and physiology presumed that medical knowledge was a means to a spiritual end.

Another obstacle Alcott overcame in his youth was popular culture’s negative view towards medicine, linking it with physicians’ violation of superstitious beliefs tied to the dissection of dead bodies. Alcott wrote that a doctor “was regarded in those days as more than half a sorcerer.”2 As he came of age, Alcott abandoned his aversion to medical knowledge in favor of good-intentioned science. In doing so, he assumed a new identity from his former yeoman status, and he would oppose the class-based access to knowledge that he had experienced as a child.3 He would not attempt to eliminate the existing class structure, but rather to eliminate the class-driven violations of health laws.

Image 2. Alcott, The House I Live in, 21.
“Here is a view of the front or fore side of
the frame of a wooden dwelling house.”
u: underpinning, s: sill, p: post, b: beam,
g: girts, st: studs, r: ridge-pole, sp: spars,
c: cupola, d: door, w: window, br: braces

Alcott’s personal experiences of self-making and self-recovery were the basis of his worldview and the context that propelled his fervor for reform. In 1826, Alcott underwent a significant turning point in his life. His memoirs relate the experience as if it were a religious conversion, fitting for someone who lived during the Second Great Awakening. Having obtained his medical license after completing a series of lectures at Yale Medical College, he returned to Hartford to resume teaching at the district school when he encountered his “old enemy”—lung disease. He suffered from “consumption, by right of inheritance” his entire life, but he was on the brink of death in the summer of 1826.4 Having survived the acute episode, Alcott felt reborn, recalling that, “There was the expectation of living, and consequently the beginning of life.”5 He climbed to the top of a mountain, and “renewed my declaration of independence with regard to those earthly props on which I had so long been wont to lean, and of dependence on God, and on his natural and moral enactments.”6 His salvation rested on mental action rather than physical, and he resolved that a Christian method of behavior and the mind’s control over the body were the most important factors in health. The experience particularly influenced his emphasis on nature as the source of health. Alcott wrote that after he passed the Rubicon of his disease, “I had not only declared and found myself able to maintain independence of medicine, but I had acquired much confidence in nature and nature’s laws.”7 Not only would Alcott reject medical drugs, but he would also reject meat, tea, and coffee, which he proved were all unnaturally stimulating substances.8 Furthermore, by assigning power to the “Divine Being” and “Nature,” Alcott eliminated the barriers that man-made social and economic structures placed on human perfectibility.

After the 1826 episode he directed his efforts towards expanding and popularizing his health philosophy, convinced of his duty to spread the divine revelation of physical law. He would provide Americans the means to physical enlightenment and the informed obedience that necessarily followed. With his own brand of interdenominational Christianity, he perceived himself as a modern prophet or a missionary destined to convey his message to the unconverted masses.9

The House I Live in, 33.
“The pillars are the bones
of the lower extremities.”

Alcott asserted that the laws of health were God-given laws of the same stature as the Ten Commandments: “There are properly two sets of the Divine laws. One of these is found in the Decalogue,” while the other “is to be chiefly learned by study, and is called the physical law.”10 A modern Christianity entailed obedience to a physical set of values in addition to the moral one. Accordingly, Alcott organized his 2230 laws of health under ten chapter headings to mimic the structure of the Ten Commandments. Alcott urged his audience to adhere to physical laws or else suffer the natural consequence of their sins—disease.

Alcott’s 1837 The House I Live in was his first popular guide to anatomy, and it illustrated a particular concept of the spirit-body relationship. He used descriptive anatomy, diagrams, and the structure of the house as an extended metaphor for the body to relay his understanding of the human body in terms to which all could relate. The house’s frame, sills, doors, and other necessary components all equated to a body part. For example, the leg bones were the house’s framework, the joints were the hinges, and cavities like the stomach were the house’s chambers. The new knowledge of anatomy and its revealed laws signaled a new direction for the body’s improvement. That said, in associating the physical body with the site of domesticity, he reaffirmed domesticity as a constant in his progressive agenda.

As he illustrated the connection between the house and the body, he wrote, “You will see that the house I live in is my body—the present residence of my immortal spirit.”11 He linked the physical body with personal identity, and was thus able to elevate the body’s importance in spiritual fulfillment. However, his metaphor simultaneously disassociated the body from the person, claiming that the body was a separate entity in which the person lived. This tension exists throughout his work, but it is resolved when Alcott explicitly separated the concept of death from disease. Disease was the result of a certain behavior that violated law, and death was the moment of divine judgment to be understood only in a religious sense. The house metaphor elevated the physical body by connecting it to the health and security of the residing spirit.

Alcott’s 1857 Laws of Health, the sequel to The House I Live in, described the structure of hygiene through an analogy to the factory. Whereas the house correlated with notions of domesticity, the factory evoked notions of labor. The language of manufacturing showed readers that each part of the body had a purpose and worked towards the overall production of health. Hygiene, in Alcott’s definition of the term, was “knowledge of our relations to the things around us.”12 Knowledge of anatomy entailed one’s inhabitance within the body, but knowledge of the laws of physiology entailed active labor within a system of production geared towards an end result. Thus, Alcott used the language of manufacturing, describing machineries of digestion and circulation, for instance, to encourage an attitude towards health similar to an austere and productive work ethic.

Moreover, the factory offered a new way of understanding the body in a time of industrial expansion. The body was a divine construction, Alcott suggested, for, “every square inch of it contains more machinery than the largest room of one of our most noble factories.”13 As America industrialized in the nineteenth century, Alcott argued that the system of the human body was infinitely more impressive. Instead of allowing this knowledge to decrease the mystery of Christian faith or foster atheistic sentiments, it amplified Alcott’s wonder and called him towards even more intense devotion. Alluding to a biblical psalm, Alcott ended his anatomy lesson with a reflection on what this knowledge meant: “At present we can add but little to the exclamation of the Psalmist,—we are fearfully and wonderfully made.”14 His descriptive anatomy and physiology combined different elements of modernity and emerging scientific knowledge to make sense of the present time. Alcott had embraced the emerging manufacturing hierarchy in recognizing parallels to the human structure, and he identified this modern era’s “revealed knowledge” with religious principles.

The factory-illustrated relationship between mind and body promoted obedience to Alcott’s physical laws. The brain was the organ whose purpose was to ensure subservience; he described the brain as “an overseer or supervisor of the whole system.”15 The brain was the organ of the mind, that abstract entity infused with individual control and moral responsibility to manage the machinery of the physical frame: “Mind has great power over even inert matter; how much more over the living animated machine!”16 This interdependent relationship stressed the equal importance of physical and intellectual cultivation. Alcott suggested that excessive mental activity removed the mind’s supervision over the body’s labor system, for “pushing the intellect, as it might be called—breaks down the digestive system, and scatters the seeds of dyspepsia broadcast over the land.”17 Though he believed mental cultivation improved bodily function, he warned schools and workplaces that encouraged an excessive activity of the mind and potentially damaged health.

So, in order to obey these newly-revealed physical laws, a certain lifestyle was necessary—one that focused on nature and Alcott’s idea of the natural relations among human beings. The lifestyle that most strictly adhered to nature required abstinence from tea, coffee, alcohol, and eating meat, as well as sexual restraint.

By 1850, Alcott co-founded and acted as the first president of the American Vegetarian Society. His manifesto on vegetarianism, Vegetable Diet: as Sanctioned by Medical Men, and by Experience in All Ages, had just been republished in 1849 by Fowler and Wells from its original 1838 edition, with an added cookbook and medical testimonies supporting what today would be called a vegan diet. He claimed, “There is no intelligent naturalist or comparative anatomist, at present, who attempts to resort for one moment to man’s structure, in support of the hypothesis that he is a flesh-eater.”18 His objective was to prove how individuals on the vegetable diet were much healthier than meat-eaters. The degree of mental control over the body increased when one adopted vegetarianism, so the lifestyle of vegetarianism enabled an advanced capacity for self-discipline and moral reasoning. His efforts show that Alcott imagined a future in which all behavior, including dietary, were determined by health laws and managed by self-discipline.

The scientific knowledge behind the ability to improve by obeying the lifestyle he laid out established a new ideal for longevity, and it refuted the assumption that “old age must bring with it such evils as render it, of necessity, miserable.”19 Alcott further modified the theology of the afterlife in Christianity with his claim that attention to the physical aspect of life on Earth was essential to salvation: “Thus, Christianity, by encouraging the cultivation and the enthronement of the elevating passions and affections, and inspiring us with hope and trust in God and love to man, is as profitable for the life that now is as for that which is to come.”20 Alcott supposed that the better the condition in which the physical body is kept, the better the afterlife would be.

The new knowledge on the human body gave rise to new responsibilities in an America that functioned on Christian mores. Alcott’s personal life demonstrated the tensions between traditional social mores and the modernity that his era witnessed. He perceived that Christian virtue was challenged by conventional medicine and poor behavior. His descriptive anatomy and physiology confronted these challenges and redefined the Christian duty within the new bounds of knowledge and the emergence of an industrial revolution. Alcott’s overriding message was that through obtaining this knowledge Americans could liberate themselves from worldly social structures and achieve individual perfection. At the same time, physiology explicated a new set of laws and furthered the extent of obedience. For Alcott and many of his contemporaries, knowledge was never an end in itself; it had profound religious significance and required moral interpretation.


  1. William Andrus Alcott, Forty Years in the Wilderness of Pills and Powders; or, the Cogitations and Confessions of an Aged Physician (Boston: John P. Jewett and Company, 1859), 3.
  2. Alcott, Forty Years in the Wilderness, 4.
  3. Michael Sappol, A Traffic of Dead Bodies:Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 176-84. Michael Sappol argues that Alcott acquired a bourgeois identity through anatomical knowledge, and that Alcott’s goal in his descriptive anatomy was to spread anatomical consciousness to a larger population so that the unrefined lower classes could strive towards middle-class behavior and status. Sappol’s argument is useful in understanding the class structure behind access to knowledge.
  4. Alcott, Forty Years in the Wilderness, 72.
  5. Alcott, Forty Years in the Wilderness, 80.
  6. Alcott, Forty Years in the Wilderness, 75.
  7. Alcott, Forty Years in the Wilderness, 77.
  8. Alcott, Vegetable Diet, as Sanctioned by Medical men, and by Experience in All Ages (Boston: Marsh, Capen & Lyon, 1838) and Tea and Coffee (Boston: George W. Light, 1839).
  9. James C. Whorton, “‘Christian Physiology’: William Alcott’s Prescription for the Millennium.” Bulletin on the History of Medicine 49, 4 (1975): 474.
  10. Alcott, The Laws of Health: or, Sequel to ‘The House I Live in’ (Boston: John P. Jewett and Company, 1857), 11.
  11. Alcott, The House I Live in; or, The Human Body, 2nd ed. (Boston: Light & Stearns, 1837), 32.
  12. Alcott, The Laws of Health, ix.
  13. Alcott, The Laws of Health, 291.
  14. Alcott, The House I Live In, 221.
  15. Alcott, The Laws of Health, 377.
  16. Alcott, Forty Years in the Wilderness, 80.
  17. Alcott, The Laws of Health, 200.
  18. Alcott, Vegetable Diet, as Sanctioned by Medical men, and by Experience in All Ages (Boston: Marsh, Capen & Lyon, 1838), 225.
  19. Alcott, The Laws of Health, 10.
  20. Alcott, The Laws of Health, 218.


  • Alcott, William Andrus. Word to Teachers; or Two Days in a Primary School. Boston: Allen and Ticknor, 1833.
  • Alcott, William Andrus. The House I Live in; or, The Human Body. 2nd ed. Boston: Light & Stearns, 1837.
  • Alcott, William Andrus. Vegetable Diet, as Sanctioned by Medical men, and by Experience in All Ages. Boston: Marsh, Capen & Lyon, 1838.
  • Alcott, William Andrus. Tea and Coffee. Boston: George W. Light, 1839.
  • Alcott, William Andrus. The Young Husband, or Duties of Man in the Marriage Relation. Boston: George W. Light, 1839.
  • Alcott, William Andrus. The Young Wife, or Duties of Woman in the Marriage Relation. 7th ed. Boston: G.W. Light, 1839.
  • Alcott, William Andrus. Confessions of a School Master. Andover and New York: Gould, Newman and Saxton, 1839.
  • Alcott, William Andrus. The Life of Peter the Apostle. 2nd ed. Boston: Massachusetts Sabbath School Society, 1839.
  • Alcott, William Andrus. The Young Mother; or, Management of Children in Regard to Health. 11th ed. 1846.
  • Alcott, William Andrus. The Young Woman’s Book of Health. Boston, Tappan, Whittemore and Mason, 1850.
  • Alcott, William Andrus. The Life of Robert Morrison: The First Protestant Missionary to China. New York: Carlton and Porter, Sunday-School Union, 1856.
  • Alcott, William Andrus. The Laws of Health: or, Sequel to ‘The House I Live in.’ Boston: John P. Jewett and Company, 1857.
  • Alcott, William Andrus. Forty Years in the Wilderness of Pills and Powders; or, the Cogitations and Confessions of an Aged Physician. Boston: John P. Jewett and Company, 1859.
  • Sappol, Michael. “The Cultural Politics of Anatomy in 19th-Century America: Death, Dissection, and Embodied Social Identity.” PhD diss., Columbia University, 1997.
  • Sappol, Michael.A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth-Century America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.
  • Whorton, James C. “‘Christian Physiology’: William Alcott’s Prescription for the Millennium.” Bulletin on the History of Medicine 49, 4 (1975): 466-81.
  • Whorton, James C. Nature Cures: The History of Alternative Medicine in America. Cary: Oxford University Press, 2002.

CATHERINE MAS studied history as an undergraduate at Columbia University, where she became interested in the cultural history of medicine in nineteenth-century America. Her undergraduate thesis, which was awarded honors by Columbia faculty, focused on the health philosophy of Catharine Beecher, author of popular domestic manuals in the antebellum period. Mas’s current research interests include the relationship between gender, medicine, and religion in the nineteenth century. Since Fall 2013, she is a doctoral student in the History of Science and Medicine at Yale University.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 6, Issue 2 – Spring 2014

Spring 2014



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