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Logo of medhistThe Wellcome Trust Centre of the History of Medicine (UCL)Medical History
Med Hist. 2010 April; 54(2): 285–286.
PMCID: PMC2844278

Book Review

Cultures of the abdomen: diet, digestion, and fat in the modern world
Reviewed by Ian Miller

Christopher E Forth and  Ana Carden- Coyne (eds),  Cultures of the abdomen: diet, digestion, and fat in the modern world,  Basingstoke and New York,  Palgrave Macmillan,  2005, pp.  vi, 264, £40.00 (hardback  1-4039-6521-8). 

Christopher E Forth and Ana Carden-Coyne rightly assert in their introduction to this edited edition that the abdomen is an area of the body left relatively unexplored by historians of medicine. We have little in the way of a full historiography of matters related to digestion, diet and gastric illness. Yet, as the editors argue, this gaping hole in the literature does not reflect the historical importance placed upon that particular region of the body and its component organs, as well as the significance of the complex relationship between the digestive system and far wider social, cultural and medical discourse. It is correctly stressed throughout that diet and nutrition in fact play critical roles in the development of our sense of self, and that historical analysis of this is necessary for understanding the deep historical meanings that underscore modern obsessions with conditions such as obesity. Yet, it is suggested, these themes are not just concerned with the medical alone. Tellingly, issues such as fat are also persistently discussed through moral frameworks, acting as an expression of personal character as well as ill health.

Spanning the entire modern period, the volume contains thirteen chapters detailing a varied array of themes ranging from the physiology of hypochondria in the eighteenth century, historical attitudes towards fat in twentieth-century America, as well as in-depth analysis of the responses of prominent historical individuals to the problems of their gut. In one particularly notable chapter, for instance, George Rousseau explores Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s obsession with his gastric problems and the subsequent development of his dream theories generated by the poor state of his digestion at night. Further contributions analyse linkage between the development of chocolate as a commodity and the introduction of efficient sewerage in nineteenth-century Europe, while Ronald L LeBlanc explores Leo Tolstoy’s use of bodily imagery stressing themes of diet, desire and denial. Ana Carden-Coyne, meanwhile, successfully argues that during the First World War, the abdomen acquired a meaningful status in America which confirmed the guts as the locus of masculinity, with military manhood from then on requiring particularly stronger inner resolve.

Inevitably, some of the pieces are more convincing than others. For instance, Joyce Huff’s analysis of the interest in the elimination of bodily fat that resulted in the employment of scientists in the public relief system in the 1860s is particularly credible. But are we really to believe that the modern obsession with chocolate stems from its apparent historical associations with oral contact with excrement (coprophagia), as Alison Moore provocatively argues? Overall what is most surprising about this volume is the number of topics left unexplored, although this is perhaps more the fault of historians generally, than that of the editors. We hear little on the role of the stomach in the development of the history of medicine. Nothing is said on, say, the significance of abdominal operations within the wider development of surgery, or shifting understandings of various prominent diseases of the digestive tract such as peptic ulcer. Ultimately, we are still left with no firm narrative about this which would complement our understandings of health, disease and the chronic conditions of the digestive tract, although it is fair to say that many pieces of the jigsaw have been slotted neatly into place. This is a minor criticism, however, and Cultures of the abdomen is a useful contribution to a heavily neglected area of medical and social history. In fact, what is presented here is a variety of highly complex, yet significant, themes with outstanding potential for further, fuller historical analysis.

Articles from Medical History are provided here courtesy of Cambridge University Press