The right way to a long life: a 17th century physician on health, obesity and smoking

While cataloguing part of our Early English collection, I discovered this interesting work by the 17th century Somerset physician, Tobias Venner (1577–1660). Venner was a  pioneering writer on health and nutrition – he produced an important early treatise on the effects of tobacco and was also the first writer to use the term ‘obesity’.

On graduation from St Alban’s College, Oxford in 1599, Venner returned home to Somerset to establish his practice. By the time he obtained his medical degrees in 1613, he was already spending summers in Bath, where the city’s thermal spa enjoyed a reputation for the treatment of illness, and the annual influx of visitors ‘taking the waters’ provided a lucrative market for physicians.

In 1620 Venner published Via recta ad vitam longam (The right way to a long life), in which he described how hygiene, diet and environment can influence health. He cautioned against drinking water conveyed through lead piping and advocated cleaning of the teeth to prevent decay. Our 1622 edition of Via recta… is also bound with the second part, published the following year, in which he describes the benefits of sleep and regular exercise. Venner claimed that bathing in Bath’s thermal springs would “make slender such bodies as are too grosse.” “Let those that fear obesity …  come often to our Bathes. For by the often use of them … they may not onely preserve their health but also keepe their bodies from being unseemingly corpulent.”

Via recta… includes plenty of advice on sensible eating and drinking. For example, while Venner considered wine to be healthy in moderation, he believed it unsuitable for younger men because it “stimulates them like madmen unto enormous and outrageous actions.” Obviously not much has changed over the last 400 years!

Tobias Venner is also famed for his Briefe and accurate treatise concerning the taking of the fume of tobacco, first published in 1621. Although he recommended tobacco to improve digestion, Venner personally disliked its “detestable savour” and his observations on the adverse effects of smoking are remarkably close to those of modern medicine: “It dries the brain, dims the sight, vitiates  the smell, hurts the stomach, destroys the concoction, disturbs the humours and spirits, corrupts the breath, induces trembling of the limbs. It desiccates the windpipe, lungs and liver, annoys the milt, scorches the heart, and causes the blood to be adjusted.”

Venner could certainly claim to have discovered the right way to a long life: he died at Bath on 27 March 1660 at the grand old age of 83 and was buried in Bath Abbey.


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