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IN WHICH THE SUBJECT OF DIGESTION IS BRIEFLY ENTERED UPON, IN CO N NECTION WITH THAT OF DIET AND REGIMEN.
As there is no function of more importance in the human economy than that of digestion, so there is none that has had more pains bestowed upon its investigation. It was always with Abernethy a favourite subject, and he threw upon it all the light he could derive from comparative anatomy and physiology. In his lectures he used to advert, with much apparent satisfaction, to an experiment made by the late Professor of Anatomy at Cambridge, Sir Busick Harwood. Sir Busick ordered two pointers to have as much food given them as they liked to eat, and then, leaving one of the dogs at home where it slept soundly, he sent the other out into the stubble to take as much exercise as a dog, with a full stomach, could be induced to take. At the return of the latter from the field, both dogs were killed, when the food of the one which had remained at home asleep was found completely digested, whilst that of the other appeared to have undergone little or no change.*
* In alluding to this and other similar experiments, in his Lecture on Digestion, before the Royal College of Surgeons, of which I shall have hereafter to speak, Abernethy remarks,—" No one is disposed to doubt the results of these
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After so decisive an experiment, who could presume to doubt that repose is favourable to digestion, and that a nap, therefore, must be a good thing after a good dinner? Such, at least, was Abernethy's opinion, and his ordinary habit is said to have been in conformity with it. Nor, in fact, is there a doubt, but that infirm persons do well to refrain from much exercise either of body or mind after their principal meal. Their digestion will proceed more healthily by taking this precaution, and their spirits flow more evenly and cheerfully through the remainder of the day. In like manner, professional men, such as Abernethy, exhausted by their preceding exertions, and reduced by them, as well as by too long abstinence from food, to a comparatively powerless state of the stomach, are the better for an hour's repose after dinner. Under such circumstances, too, it is a point of still greater importance not to overload the stomach. But take the case of indolent free livers, and it will soon be perceived that great caution is necessary in the application of Sir Busick Harwood's maxim. To enable them to digest the greatest possible quantity of food in the least possible space of time, is to put them in the shortest way to the grave—and it was partly, no doubt, from the perception of this danger that the old maxim arose of "after dinner sit awhile; after supper walk a mile." By sitting awhile after dinner digestion was facilitated, and no danger, for the most part, was to be apprehended ; but, suppose an elderly gentleman to have made a hearty supper, and soon after to have retired to bed—what was likely to follow? Either too sudden and abundant a supply of chyle to the circulating current of blood, or flatulency, occasioned by fermentation, auxiliary to the process of digestion,* or both combined, and equally tending to produce apoplexy, by fullness and pressure interrupting the returning venous current, and throwing it back upon the brain.
experiments, for every one is more or less convinced by his own feelings, that affections of the mind, and bodily exertion, will, by disturbing or otherwise occupying the nervous energies, diminish or prevent appetite and digestion."— Lect. IV. p. 178.
We accordingly find by reference to the chronicles of olden times, when it was the custom to make hearty suppers, that gentlemen and ladies were perpetually going to bed in the highest possible state of health, and found dead the following morning by their distressed and astonished relatives. Such accounts are of comparative rarity at the present day, and yet, with persons in easy circumstances, the modern luncheon takes the place of the dinner, and the modern dinner of the supper of former days. How then is the exemption, alluded to, from apoplexy to be accounted for? The answer will be somewhat circuitous. It is perfectly true that persons in easy circumstances dine, for the most part, at the present day, about the same hour at which their ancestors supped; but is there not usually a longer interval between dinner and bed, than there formerly was between bed-time and the preceding supper? And how is the interval employed? In a great majority of instances cheerfully and healthily. And, in like manner, if a whole day be taken into account, it will be seen that we are far from being a degenerate posterity.
* When, from a disordered state of the stomach, or from a superabundant quantity of food, the gastric juice, upon a due supply of which healthy digestion depends, is inadequate to its task, acetous fermentation is established, to break down and remove what digestion has not sufficiently comminuted; and as, in the language of the old schools, the second digestion cannot overcome the errors of the first, a further fermentation goes on lower down, which is apt to be productive of still more distressing flatulency, occasioning, primarily and locally, spasms and other painful ails innumerable, and laying the foundationof those distressing nervous symptoms which make life miserable to thousands.
With respect to the still remaining, and still numerous cases of palsy, there is reason to believe, that the pernicious habit of smoking cigars, and taking snuff, which prevails in certain classes, not the highest, of the community, is not a little concerned.
Queen Elizabeth's first meal, to institute a comparison at the head of the social scale, consisted, historians tell us, of animal food with wine and malt liquor. Now, I have not had the honour of breakfasting with Queen Victoria, nor do I know whether her gracious Majesty prefers coffee to tea, or some other light and agreeable infusion to either, but it may be safely presumed that neither wine nor maltliquor is admitted at the royal breakfast table, and that the animal food on the sideboard is neither hung beef, potted char, nor dried salmon.
Next in order of comparison, come the dinner and correspondent luncheon of their Majesties; and here we shall find a much closer approximation in the respective bills of fare, and no very dissimilar manner of spending the intermediate time between the dinner and supper of the one, and the luncheon and dinner of the other. But with Queen Elizabeth's supper, the day in a manner ended; and except upon festive occasions, when balls, masks, or other Court-revels were going on, her Majesty and her attendants were accustomed to go early to bed, and rose, for that must not be forgotten, proportionably early.*
Queen Victoria, on the contrary, has, customarily, a long "after-dinner" before retiring to rest. This interval is agreeably passed in the manner and society most congenial to her Majesty's taste; and thus are the refections of the day, consisting of the very best diet the world can produce, improved by the very best cookery, allowed time for healthy digestion, which is furthermore assisted by a cup of coffee or tea, luxuries which good Queen Bess never enjoyed; and when the hour of rest comes, the sleep which gradually steals over the senses, the natural result of lassitude, is just such as is best calculated to restore, both to the mind and body, the energies which will be in requisition again the ensuing day. »
Now, there is no country where the gradations of rank are more completely dovetailed than in England; none, therefore, of which, it may be said, with equal truth, that —as is the Court, so are the Courtiers; as are the Courtiers, so are the Nobility; as are the Nobility, so are the Aristocracy generally; and so on to the Gentry,
* Modern fashionables are, not unfrequently, going to their beds, when their ancestors would have been thinking of leaving them. Dr. Clarke used to say, that his patients in high life seldom appeared to think it hard upon him to be summoned to their bedsides at midnight or later. The apology was only made when he was called to them at eight or nine in the morning.