On the August morning that he began his diet, 26 years into the reign of Queen Victoria, the short and very fat William Banting heaved himself out of bed at 8am, hoisted a corset around his bulging stomach and struggled into his three-piece suit. Unable to reach his laces, he gingerly eased his feet into his shoes with a boot hook – taking care as he stooped not to stress the angry boils on his buttocks.
As he negotiated the stairs in reverse (a method, he found, that eased the crushing pressure on his knees), he was looking forward to the cooked breakfast awaiting in the dining room below – but dreading the effect it would have on his ever-ballooning bulk.
Twelve months later, the 5ft 5in Mr Banting had shed more than three stone to be a slightly portly 11 stone. It was 1863 and Banting declared the diet “simply miraculous”. So evangelical was Banting in extolling and promoting the virtues of his diet that he became a household name: the verb, to bant, meaning to diet, was absorbed into the vernacular and appeared in the Oxford dictionary until 1963.
But in the century between Banting first taking a knife and fork to his new diet revolution and his last appearance in the OED, his name gradually slipped from the public consciousness . . . until, in 1972, an American cardiologist by the name of Dr Robert Atkins published his own New Diet Revolution.
Today, the Atkins diet is the household name and Banting is forgotten by all except a few students of dietetic history and a handful of lexicographers. Yet, remarkably, the Atkins diet is virtually identical to that which stripped William Banting of his excess pounds.
So who was this low-carb, high-protein pioneer for what is now a multi-million pound industry that numbers among its devotees such Hollywood stars as Jennifer Aniston, Demi Moore and Renee Zellweger? And how did he discover his diet?
William Banting, born in London in 1797, was an upper middle class funeral director, and for five generations the family firm held the Royal warrant until 1928. Among those whose state burials they organised were Admiral Nelson, George III, George IV, William IV and Prince Albert (just two years before William began his diet). Later, under the reigns of his second son, the company oversaw the funeral of Queen Victoria in 1901.
The Banting family business paid for his Georgian townhouse in Kensington, which was lavishly decorated and furnished. His wife, Mary Ann, had a jewellery collection worth several thousands of pounds and, in the basement of their four-storey property, he kept an enviable wine cellar which he passed on to his eight children (two boys, six girls) in his will which would be worth £3.3 million today.
From his mid-30s he struggled miserably against his burgeoning size. None of his family suffered from obesity, a condition, he viewed with “inexpressible dread”. He blamed it for the catalogue of ills he suffered as over the next 30 years: failing sight, impaired hearing, insomnia, an umbilical rupture, “many obnoxious boils, and two rather formidable carbuncles”.
He was so stung by the sniggers and snide asides of strangers as he waddled to his office at 27 St James’s Street off Piccadilly, that he avoided social gatherings and public transport to escape, “the sneers and remarks of the cruel and injudicious”.
Like his counterparts today, Banting tried every fashionable remedy on offer. In addition to regular trips to “the waters and climate of Leamington”, Cheltenham and Harrogate, popular Victorian spa towns, Banting took up to three Turkish baths a week and only lost six pounds. He even experimented with starvation diets, living “upon sixpence a day, so to speak”. Yet “the evil”, as he describes his fat, “still increased”.
A doctor and personal friend recommended extreme physical exertion: brisk walks, horse-riding and rowing on the Thames early every morning. “It is true I gained muscular vigour,” Banting admitted, “but with it a prodigious appetite, which I was compelled to indulge, and consequently increased in weight, until my kind old friend advised me to forsake the exercise.” Banting arrived at the Soho Square practice of Dr William Harvey, a distinguished surgeon, by chance. His usual specialist had taken his annual summer holiday, so Banting sort an alternative. Dr Harvey was available and, again by chance, had just returned from a Paris conference where he had heard a Monsieur Claude Bernard lecture on diet and diabetes.
As the barrel-shaped Banting stood before him, Harvey saw the opportunity of an experiment. Why not use Banting as a guinea pig and apply M. Bernard’s ideas to “corpulence”?
Harvey took copious notes as Banting described his daily dietary intake: the breakfasts that included umpteen slices of buttered toast and a pint of tea with plenty of sugar; much bread – of which, he confessed “I was always very fond” – meat and beer. For lunch he ate meat, pastry, more bread and beer, followed by sweet tea; and a supper of bread, milk and a fruit tart.
Dr Harvey finished scribbling and ordered Banting to cut out potatoes, bread, sugar, milk and beer. He handed him a sheet of paper which detailed his new regime:
“Breakfast, 9am: 6oz of either beef, mutton, kidneys, broiled fish, bacon or cold meat of any kind except pork or veal; 9oz of tea or coffee without milk or sugar; a little biscuit or 1oz of dry toast.
“Lunch, 2pm: 5-6 oz of any fish except salmon, herrings or eels, or any meat except pork or veal; any vegetable except potato, parsnip or beetroot, turnip or carrot; 1oz of dry toast; fruit out of a pudding, not sweetened; any kind of poultry or game; 2-3 glasses of good claret, sherry or Madeira. Champagne, port and beer are forbidden.
“Tea, 6pm: 2-3oz of cooked fruit, a rusk or two, tea without milk or sugar.
“Supper, 9pm: 3-4oz of meat or fish similar to lunch. For nightcap, if required, a tumbler of grog (gin, whisky or brandy, without sugar) or a glass or two of claret or sherry.”
Banting was so delighted with the prescription that he tipped Dr Harvey £50 to give to his favourite hospital, on top of the usual fee. He wrote: “It certainly appears to me that my present dietary table is far superior to the former [and] more luxurious and liberal.”
It also worked. From the first week the undertaker began to shed pounds and as the months passed and his weight loss continued, Banting decided to share his “philosopher’s stone” with the public. “Of all the parasites that affect humanity, I do not know of . . . any more distressing than that of obesity,” he began his Letter On Corpulence in 1864. “I am desirous of circulating my humble knowledge and experience for the benefit of other sufferers, with an earnest hope that it may lead to the same comfort and happiness I now feel under the extraordinary change.”
While Dr Atkins, who died earlier this year, reaped millions from his diet, Banting asked for no recompense for his publications. Indeed, he saw it as a public duty to pass on the “cure” for obesity and gave all the profits from the many editions of Letter on Corpulence to hospital charities. The Letter sold 63,000 copies in Britain – a staggering number in an era when many were illiterate – was translated into French and German, and sold widely in Europe and the US. Banting’s once portly form was regularly satirised in Punch cartoons, even long after his death; his name was used in music hall ballads and the diet was even referred to by Evelyn Waugh in A Handful of Dust. Neither Banting nor Harvey made any attempt to copyright the idea, believing that the outline of the diet was “as old as the hills”. Banting’s descendants and biographers are scathing of Dr Atkins’s “reinvention” of the low-carb diet. Dr Barry Groves, a nutritionist and author of Eat Fat Get Thin, says: “There is only one difference between the two diets: the quantity of carbohydrate allowed in Atkins is marginally less than in Banting’s. I believe the extent that carbohydrate is restricted in Atkins is what makes it dangerous. Banting’s diet was in fact more healthy.”
Banting’s papers – his letters, diary, details of where he was educated – were inherited by his great granddaughter-in-law, Nina Banting, who destroyed them in a bout of post-natal depression in the late 1950s, describing him as a “horrid little man.” Nina’s grandson, the Rev David Banting, from Harold Wood, Essex, says: “I believe my ancestor was a philanthropist and the fact that he did not attempt to profit from the diet is typical of the public-spirited Victorian age. He had a good heart and, in a time when dieting was not that common, he wanted to share with others in his position, his great find. He wanted the world to know.”
Like its modern day reincarnation, however, Banting’s diet also caused controversy. In a time when Mrs Isabella Beeton’s newly published recipe book – filled with stodgy puddings and pies – was considered a domestic bible, a backlash was inevitable. Some newspapers reported gleefully that Banting had been killed by his own diet, a slight that he quickly rebuked in person. (Atkins, who died earlier this year after slipping on an icy pavement, was also incorrectly reported to have died from a heart attack brought on by his own diet.)
Banting was most frustrated by his lack of graphic evidence of the efficacy of his diet plan, something he believed would have silenced his critics and encouraged his adherents. “I deeply regret not having secured a photographic portrait of my original figure in 1862, to place in juxtaposition with one of my present form,” he wrote. “It might have amused some, but certainly would have been very convincing to others and astonishing to all.”
Instead, he was forced to illustrate the change in the only way available, “putting on my former clothing, over what I now wear, which is a thoroughly convincing proof of the remarkable change.” While no photograph of that survives either, it may have consoled Banting to know that, 140 years on, his diet really is world renowned, albeit under another name.
Additional research: Duncan Abey
This is is a syndicated post. Read the original at www.telegraph.co.uk