Dr Elsa Richardson, one of ten academics selected by BBC Radio 3 and the Arts and Humanities Research Council as a New Generation Thinker, examines the history of nutrition, digestive health and emotional wellbeing.
Tell us about yourself
I am an historian of medicine based at the University of Strathclyde, where I hold a Chancellor’s Fellowship in the History of Health and Wellbeing. Prior to this I completed a PhD with the Centre for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary University of London, before spending a couple of years teaching, working on public projects with institutions like the Wellcome Collection and collaborating with artists, filmmakers and curators.
My undergraduate years were spent in an English Literature department and that early training has really influenced my approach as a historian. Because I don’t want to stop reading poems and novels, my research looks at how medical and scientific knowledge is negotiated within a broad social context, that includes literature and other forms of popular culture.
This interdisciplinary indecision formed the basis of my first monograph, which examined the place of extraordinary forms of visionary experience in the Victorian scientific and literary imagination. Specifically, it considered how the phenomena second sight, a form of prophetic vision associated with the folklore of the Scottish Highlands and Islands, became an object of investigation for anthropologists, folklorists and psychologists.
Its focus was not with the supernatural per se, but rather with understanding how marginal forms of knowledge come to impact on what becomes authoritative discourse. And though my research has moved on to other areas, I am still interested in the way heterodoxy shapes orthodoxy.
What is the area of your research?
Currently I am working on a number of projects that look at histories of nutrition and alternative dietary culture in late 19th and early 20th-century Britain, with particular attention paid to the connections between digestive health and emotional wellbeing that begin to be drawn in this period.
One of these, ‘The First Health Food Empire: Eustace Miles and Life Reform, 1900-1930’, explores the life of an Edwardian wellness guru, who was something of a celebrity in his day. Known first as a champion tennis player, Eustace Hamilton Miles really made his name as an outspoken and charismatic advocate for the meat-free diet.
In addition to writing advice literature on physical health and wholefood cookbooks, Miles also operated a chain of vegetarian restaurants and health food shops in London. He published a periodical, the Healthward Ho!, where he marketed his own line of meat substitutes and body-building protein products.
What is so remarkable about Miles is how he managed to establish himself as a widely recognisable brand. His restaurants, books, magazines and products all helped to create a unique personal brand, one that could be put to work in selling a vision of wellbeing to a growing market of health consumers.
A good example of this is the protein preparation that Miles patented. Combining his initials with an allusion to protein, around 1910 he developed a special mixture called ‘Emprote’ and began marketing it as a training tool for ‘cyclists, athletes and swimmers’. Claiming that it provided the consumer with ‘extra staying power and energy’, Emprote was essentially a preparation of dried mild and cereal with some rather mysterious added proteins, which could be consumed as drink or eaten as patented ‘EM Bars’ and ‘EM Bread’.
In newspaper and periodical adverts, Miles boasted that it was endorsed by famous mountaineers and sportsmen and the product featured on his restaurant’s menus and on the inside covers of his publications. This cross branding feels familiar. There is something modern about how Miles recognised and capitalised on his customers’ anxieties around diet, using a combination of scientific language, clever marketing and personal charisma. Which is not to suggest that he was not sincere, I think he absolutely was, but he also recognised that there was money to be made from wholefoods.
What is the importance of this research?
Despite being a well-known figure in his day, no dedicated study of Eustace Hamilton Miles exists. And very little had been made of his substantial contribution to public discourses around health and nutrition. My research addresses this absence and makes the case for Miles as an important forerunner of the modern health guru.
He was most famous around the First World War, when he really caught the mood of a nation concerned, more than ever, with the importance of diet and bodily wellbeing. Successfully tapping into a broader life-reform movement, that looked to pursuits like hill walking and sunbathing as antidotes to the over-refined comforts of the urban world, Miles framed vegetarianism as an alimentary route back to nature. In other words, he promised his customers that a more ‘natural’ lifestyle, one quite removed from the dulling effects of industrial capitalism, could be purchased for a reasonable sum.
We can observe this paradox at work in the modern health food industry – in the outlandish promises made on behalf of humble brassica or in heavily packaged ‘unrefined’ snacks – and I think that Miles can tell us something important about the origins of the wellbeing business.
Historians of health have tended to emphasise medical advancement and state intervention as drivers of reform, but what figures like Miles demonstrate is that —for better or for worse— consumerism has also had a hand in shaping ideas around healthy living.
Dr Elsa Richardson has researched and published on women’s life writing, British modernism, vegetarianism in fiction, performance and psychology, feminist consciousness-raising and psychoanalysis. In addition to lecturing in the history of medicine at the University of Strathclyde, she also curates arts and science events for public institutions including several for the Wellcome Collection. Her publications include: Second Sight in the Nineteenth Century : Prophecy, Imagination and Nationhood; New queer histories : Laura Doan’s Disturbing Practices and the Constance Maynard Archive; and Inspired by Constance Maynard : exploring women’s sexual, emotional and religious lives through their writings.