In the 18th century the average life expectancy in Sweden was around 35 years for men (in 2020 it is 81 years). The first real hospital in Sweden, intended exclusively for curing diseases, was opened in 1752 in Stockholm. So, is there anything we today can learn from health advice given in the early 18th century?
Carl Linnaeus was a Swedish botanist, zoologist, and physician. On May 12, 1732, the 25 years old Carl set out on a dangerous voyage to the northern part of Sweden — Lapland where the Sami people lives. The trip to Lapland was a big and expensive adventure that was paid for by the Royal Society of Sciences in Sweden. We can understand that the trip was considered dangerous because Linnaeus “bequeathed” all his scientific writings and manuscripts to his friend Petrus Arctaedius before he left. The trip was successful and Carl returned to Uppsala after five-months.
After his adventurous and inspiring trip to Lapland, on April 29, 1733, Carl Linnaeus begins writing a manuscript that he called — “Diæta naturalis” (natural diet) which is a collection of health rules that; according to Linnaeus “with whose benefits people can push their age to double length without illness”. The rules are very much about living a natural life. He referred to how the Sami people managed to maintain health much better than the over civilized groups of society. Carl Linnaeus believed that those who followed the principles of nature could reach double life expectancy. In his texts the pale-powdered noblewoman was contrasted with the healthy rose-skinned peasant girl.
The rules are 136 in number. He didn't want to write a medical book or a cook-book but instead some short and simple rules that could be follow by everyone. The text is written in Latin which was the language the scholars wrote their texts in.
Excerpt of the rules
Rule 1: “Omnae vivum parit sui simile” or “All things alive gives birth to its equal”
Rule 3: “The baby should be raised with breast milk for a few years”.
Rule 12 “you should avoid all smelly and other things that pollute the air”.
Exercise was useful even then: rules 16 & 17 “You should regularly take light exercise up to a third of the day. Exercise should make you moist, not sweaty. ”
Rule 29 “Both he who eats too much and he who eats too little eventually destroys his body”
Rules 31, 37 and 40. “The best food for us is fruits and beef. You should not eat vegetables. The best spices are banana, cinnamon and a small amount of cooked cloves and saffron. Fatty things are harmful to the stomach”. But he is somewhat inconsistent because rule 93 says “The most natural food is taken from vegetables”
Rule 95 “Fruit is man’s best food”
Rule 49 “Thou shalt not spit but swallow it”.
Rule 50 “Tobacco smoke, snuff and chewing tobacco are all toxic”.
Rules 51, 59, 60, 61 “Natural secretions must not be delayed. Love attracts young people and young men; moderate love making is necessary. Having love twice a month, or at most a week, does not hurt, under equal conditions. Love in the spring and autumn are the most harmless. Inactivity in sexual intercourse hurts”.
Rule 68, 70 “Medicine without diet does little good. A fool is one who puts his trust in medicine, if the diet has the ability to help. You should not submit to bloodletting, laxative and the like except in case of emergency”.
Linnaeus was very impressed and elated by what he finds during his journey to the north. He is amazed and fascinated by the people and the nature. There are probably several reasons why Linnaeus was so positive about what he saw, and there was a cultural critical tradition that glorifies the simple natural life compared to city life. Perhaps also Uppsala professor Olof Rudbeck’s glorification of the Nordic countries had an influence on Linnaeus. Olof Rudbeck wrote between 1679 and 1702 a 3000 page long work where he purported to prove that Sweden was Atlantis, the cradle of civilization.
Carl Linnaeus himself lived to be 70 years old and became famous all over the world. Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau sent a message: “Tell him I know no greater man on earth.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote: “With the exception of Shakespeare and Spinoza, I know no one among the no longer living who has influenced me more strongly.”
In 2014 the mathematical PageRank algorithm, applied to 24 multilingual Wikipedia editions, placed Carl Linnaeus at the top historical figures, above Jesus, Aristotle, Napoleon, and Adolf Hitler (in that order).
The meeting between the Enlightenment scientists Carl Linnaeus and the Sami people in northern Lapland became a set of rules that 300 years later in a completely different society still has relevance and clarity.
Rule 64: “profound thoughts that exercise the brain, you should facilitate”