Rumours and opposition
This was a real money-spinner. While Banting’s first two editions were distributed at no charge, he received payment for the third edition, earning a total of £ 969 (6), which would amount to just under £ 616 000 (8) in today’s money – a substantial sum for a relatively small pamphlet. As might be expected, he was accused of profiting from people’s misery. For this very reason, and in a display of his integrity he gave a comprehensive account of every shilling he had earned in the fourth edition of his pamphlet. It showed that he had donated the profit to various hospitals and institutions for the needy, making Banting one of the major benefactors of his time.
The preface to the fourth edition dwells on the criticism to which he was subjected. The arguments ranged from mere rumour to highly critical articles published in medical journals. The criticism dealt with all aspects of Banting’s work, including who should be credited with inventing the diet (9, 10), and the impropriety of a layman busying himself with medical literature:
«We advise Mr. Banting, and everyone of his kind, not to meddle with medical literature again, but be content to mind his own business.» (9)
In light of our own era’s increasingly detailed knowledge of the physiology of obesity, we may regard The Lancet’s claim in 1864 that «the professional literature about corpulence is tolerably complete» (9) as somewhat premature. However, the following characterisation of fat people appearing in the journal could have also been written by contemporary clinicians: «…the fact that few fat people possess any great power of self-denial or much physical energy. So they give a day or two to the diet, and then drift back to the sweets of life» (9). It was only in the 1930s that medical journals began in earnest to examine overweight and obesity in a more critical light (11).
Another type of criticism centred on the health risks posed by the diet itself. The British Medical Journal cited the fate of a High Court justice in a bid to warn the public. This is a revealing account of people´s views on obesity at the time.
«Mr. Justice Williams is at last pronounced out of danger. For weeks he has been hovering between life and death. It is to be hoped that those of our readers who are tempted to try the effect of the Banting system to reduce that obesity which nature has given them will think a little of Mr. Justice Williams before adopting it, for it is certain that the serious illness of the learned judge was occasioned by the use of Bantingism.» (12) (Text highlighted by the author of this article)
However, Banting gained the support of a few doctors. In 1870 the book On Diet and the Regimen in Sickness and Health (13) was published, in which Dr. Dobell dealt with the criticism of Banting:
«Mr. Banting has done a great deal more good than harm. He has not brought forward a single new fact or new idea, but he has had the luck, by zealously advertising a striking case of the effects of a plan of treatment long familiar to every medical man who understood physiology, to convince the public of the immense influence on the animal organism of modifications in the quality of food – an influence in the importance of which they did not half believe when urged upon them in the form of medical advice.»