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The Health Habits of William Cullen Bryant

Born in 1794, noted journalist and poet W.C. Bryant, was also known for his active and healthy lifestyle. In 1871, at the age of 76, he responded to an inquiry regarding his health habits. The son of a doctor, Bryant became interested in homeopathy and in 1841 served as the first President of the Homeopathic Society of New York Physicians. In 1860, he was one of the founders of the New York Medical College, where he then served as President and Trustee. In the following letter he details his personal selfcare regimen.


Dear Sir:

I promised, some time since, to give you some account of my habits of life, so far, at least, as regards diet, exercise and occupation. I am not sure that it will be of any use to you, although the system which I have for many years observed seems to answer my purpose very well. I have reached a pretty advanced period of life, without the usual infirmities of old age, and with my strength, activity and bodily faculties generally in pretty good preservation. How far this may be the effect of my way of life, adopted long ago, and steadily adhered to, is perhaps uncertain.


I rise early, at this time of the year about 5:30; in Summer, half an hour, or even an hour earlier. Immediately, with very little incumbrance of clothing, I begin a series of exercises, for the most part designed to expand the chest, and at the same time call into action all the muscles and articulations of the body. These are performed with dumb bells, the very lightest, covered with flannel; with a pole, a horizonal bar, and a light chair swung around my head. After a full hour, and sometimes more, passed in this manner, I bathe from head to foot. When at my place in the country, [in Roslyn] I sometimes shorten my exercise in the chamber, and, going out, occupy myself for half an hour or more in some work which requires brisk exercise. After my bath, if breakfast be not ready, I sit down to my studies until I am called.


My breakfast is a simple one—hominy and milk, or in place of hominy, brown bread, or oat meal, or wheaten grits, and, in the season, baked sweet apples. Buckwheat cakes I do not decline, nor any other article of vegetable food, but animal food I never take at breakfast. Tea and coffee I never touch at any time. Sometimes I take a cup of chocolate, which has no narcotic effect and agrees with me very well. At breakfast I often take fruit, either in its natural state or freshly stewed.


After breakfast I occupy myself for awhile with my studies, and then, when in town, I walk down to the office of the Evening Post, nearly three miles distant, and after about three hours return, always walking, whatever be the weather or the state of the streets. In the country I am engaged in my literary tasks till a feeling of weariness drives me out into the open air, and I go upon my farm or into the garden and prune the trees, or perform some other work about them which they need and then go back to my books. I do not often drive out, preferring to walk.


In the country I dine early, and it is only at that meal that I take either meat or fish, and of these but a moderate quantity, making my dinner mostly of vegetable. At the meal which is called tea, I take only a little bread and butter with fruit, if it be on the table. In town, where I dine later, I take but two meals a day. Fruit makes a considerable part of my diet, and I eat it at almost any hour of the day without inconvenience. My drink is water, yet I sometimes, though rarely, take a glass of wine. I never meddle with tobacco, except to quarrel with its use.


That I may rise early, I, of course, go to bed early; in town, as early as ten; in the country, somewhat earlier. For many years I have avoided in the evening every kind of literary occupation which tasks the faculties, such as composition, even to the writing of letters, for the reason that it excites the nervous system and prevents sound sleep.


My brother told me, not long since, that he had seen in a Chicago newspaper, and several other Western journals, a paragraph in which it was said that I am in the habit of taking quinine as a stimulant; that I have depended upon the excitement it produced in writing my verses, and that, in consequence of using it in that way, I had become as deaf as a post. As to my deafness, you know that to be false, and the rest of the story is equally so. I abominate all drugs and narcotics, and have always carefully avoided everything which spurs nature to exertions which it would not otherwise make. Even with my food I do not take the usual condiments, such as pepper, and the like.

I am sir, truly yours,

W.C. Bryant March 30, 1871


A version of this article by former LHC Archivist Myrna Sloam originally appeared in the January/February 2003 Bryant Library Newsletter

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