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‘Graduate School Will Kill You’ and Other 18th Century Health Advice for the Studious

Before I began my doctoral studies, I worked for five years in the field of worksite wellness, an experience that made me painfully aware of the growing evidence that sedentarism—spending too many hours sitting on one’s glorious behind—has deleterious health effects. Unfortunately, as a striving academic, I often find myself seated squarely on my rear for what sometimes feels like endless amounts of time.

While many a modern day inforgraphic can summarize how sitting may be killing us, William Buchan, MD’s domestic medicine manual, Domestic Medicine Or, a Treatise on the Prevention and Cure of Diseases By Regimen and Simple Medicines (1772, second edition) provides period recommendations for the studious, which I found entertaining, enlightening, affirming, and worrisome in equal measure.[1] Many of Buchan’s recommendations ring as true today as they did nearly 250 years ago.

Buchan writes:

Intense thinking is so destructive to health, that few instances can be produced of studious persons who are strong and healthy, or live to an extremely old age. Hard study always implies a sedentary life; and, when intense thinking is joined to the want of exercise, the consequences must be bad…Man is evidently not formed for continual thought more than perpetual action, and would be as soon worn out by one as by the other.

Now that it’s sunk in that nothing is worse for your health—or less beneficial to society—than studying all day [dejected sigh], consider Buchan’s recommendations for promoting health among the studious:

Don’t sit all day. He warns that sitting “from morning till night” impairs digestion, the discharge of urine, liver and lung function, and causes gout. Unrelated to sitting, studying also causes sore eyes, especially when reading by candle light, which “ought to be practiced as seldom as possible.”

Practice good posture. As if foreseeing the rise of standing and walking desks, Buchan urges studious people to pay attention to their posture, alternating between sitting and standing positions. He also promotes proper ergonomic positioning while sitting as he warns, “Those who read or write too much are ready to contract a habit of bending forward and often press with their breast upon a table or bench. This posture cannot fail to hurt the lungs.” [My husband, who’s a physical therapist, read this recommendation and asked, “When did [Buchan] write this? This dude’s totally on point.” So there’s that.]

Focus on your digestion. The food studies scholar is doubly damned in that, “No person can enjoy health who does not properly digest his food. But intense thinking and inactivity never fail to weaken the powers of digestion.” Lest we get caught in a never ending cycle of studying and poor digestion, Buchan encourages us to “never study too long at a time” and eat regularly.

William Buchan's Domestic Medicine contained a plethora of medical information, including a section on the health of the studious.

William Buchan’s Domestic Medicine contained much medical information, written for public consumption and application, including a section on the health of the studious.

Strive for work-life balance. Buchan warns that our nerves are vulnerable to the effects of study, as “a delirium, melancholy, and even madness, are often the effect of close application to study.” [Ain’t that the truth?] Thus, we must strive for work-life balance and fulfilling non-academic hobbies, because “[h]ardly any thing can be more preposterous than for a person to make study his sole business. A mere student is seldom an useful member of society.” [Even deeper dejected sigh.] Buchan recommends that the studious “engage in some employment or diversion,” [horseback] rides, or walks.

Socialize with non-academic friends. Buchan frowns upon intellectual elitism, stating that while “learned men often contract a contempt for what they call trifling company,” it is imperative that those who consider themselves philosophers associate with “the cheerful and gay.”

Enjoy the great outdoors. While our studying often keeps us indoors in dark quarters, we must seek fresh air and sunshine at every opportunity, which refresh both mind and body. Florence Nightingale reinforces the power of the sun as she writes nearly 100 years later in Notes On Nursing: What It Is, and What It Is Not (1859), “The sun is not only a painter but a sculptor” (p. 48).

Exercise regularly, and in the morning. While the morning is the best time to study, Buchan argues that we must first exercise, on an empty stomach no less. Notably, “It is not sufficient to take diversion only when we can think no longer.”

Listen to music. We ought to listen to music for it “has a very happy effect in relieving the mind when fatigued with study.” [So go ahead and link those grant funds up to your iTunes account.]

Avoid strong liquor. While borderline alcoholism and caffeine addiction are often hallmarks of academic careers, Buchan warns, “This indeed a remedy; but it is a desperate one, and always proves destructive.” He assures that we shall undoubtedly be better served by recreational horseback riding than strong drink. But don’t lose heart; a suitable diet includes “fine malt liquor, not too strong, good cyder [sic], wine and water, or if troubled with acidities, water mixed with a little brandy.”

Eat in moderation. Consume “any kind of food that is wholesome,” but avoid “sour, windy [read gassy], and rancid foods.” We also ought to eat a light supper early in the evening.

So there you have it: 250-year-old health recommendations for the studious that while reasonably on point for the twenty-first-century graduate school experience, will do nothing to assuage the hundreds of pages of reading you have to complete. With that, I leave you to complement your scholarly endeavors by listening to music, socializing with folks outside of the academic bubble, drinking weakly-alcoholic beverages, strolling in the sunshine, and, of course, riding horses.

[1] Here, in the NIH National Library of Medicine Digital Collections, you can read a beautifully uploaded copy of the eleventh edition of Domestic Medicine from 1789. Recommendations for the studious begin on page 61.

Top Photo Credit: Emily Contois, 2016 


    • emilycontois says

      Isn’t it uncanny how true it reads today? Thank you for reading and commenting!


  1. Pingback: Interdisciplinarity & Health: 10 Posts to Celebrate National Public Health Week | Emily Contois

  2. Ok, I’m waiting for eyesight problems. We have computer screen issues..if it isn’t candlelight. 🙂


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