Food, Medicine and Institutional Life in the British Isles, c. 1790–1900

Authored by: Ian Miller

The Routledge History of Food

Print publication date:  October  2014
Online publication date:  October  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415628471
eBook ISBN: 9781315753454
Adobe ISBN: 9781317621133


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This chapter explores two discrete, but inter-related, dimensions of modern food history: the medicalization of diet from the late eighteenth century onward and the development of new strategies of large-scale institutional feeding. From the late eighteenth century, medical scientists began to analyse and comprehend food in new ways. Contemporaneously, state bodies in many western countries began using institutions to tackle problems such as insanity and crime. Food played a powerful role in structuring institutional experiences as this chapter demonstrates by exploring historical case studies in the British Isles. This chapter presents institutions as spaces where medico-scientific knowledge of food was produced, applied, tested and debated, particularly in the nineteenth century. Notably, throughout the period in question, medical communities across the British Isles lamented the inadequate dietary customs of the working-class population whom they routinely depicted as under-fed, under-nourished and unhealthy. 1 However, it was only in the twentieth century when health care professionals proved relatively more successful in regulating what the population ate; an outcome that John Coveney encapsulates with the term ‘nutritional policing’. 2 Coveney depicts the nineteenth-century emergence of nutritional science as having been characterized by the ever-increasing governance of bodily behaviour through dietary guidance and advice. Other historians – most notably James Vernon – frame food as a more intricate historical artefact; as something that an array of actors including consumers, journalists, scientists and policy-makers debated, regulated and sought to govern. 3 Although historiographical debates on the extent to which medical authority successfully intervened in day-to-day dietary activities are ongoing, what is certain is that diet was increasingly subject to expert interventions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Adding to these debates, this chapter demonstrates that prior to the twentieth century, institutions offered enclosed, strictly regimented spaces where medical authority in diet could expand to an extent not then possible in the general community.

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