Confounding Malthus

Roy Porter

  • Health and the Rise of Civilisation by Mark Nathan Cohen
    Yale, 285 pp, £22.50, October 1989, ISBN 0 300 04006 7
  • Nutrition and Economic Development in the 18th-Century Habsburg Monarchy: An Anthropomorphic History by John Komlos
    Princeton, 325 pp, $45.00, November 1989, ISBN 0 691 04257 8

Early in the 18th century, the populariser of Newton and fashionable physician George Cheyne advanced his own medical ‘inverse square law’: the health of nations varied in inverse ratio to the wealth of nations. The greater the progress this country had made – in material goods, urbanisation, leisure and civility – the greater the visitations of sickness upon her people. An entirely new name was needed for this phenomenon: the ‘English Malady’ described a chronic degenerative nervous disorder, commonly culminating in suicide. Civilisation, Cheyne contended, had always been the cradle of sickness. Egypt and Greece had often been praised for inventing medicine, but such credit was out of court. Earlier societies had had no need of doctors, for they had suffered little disease. It was sedentary cultural centres and the civilising process itself which had bred sickness.

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