Dr. Henry S. Tanner was born in Tunbridge Wells in England in 1831, but in 1848, aged 17, he migrated and 5 years later he became a student at Eclectic Medicine School in Cincinnati Ohio, where he was taught that humans could not survive longer than ten days without food. He studied here with his wife and, after their graduations, they both became physicians and ran electrothermal baths in Ohio. Tanner believed that people ate far too much and that the solution to stomach problems and inflammatory conditions was fasting and so he began the practice of week long fasts.
He also began exploring the effects food on character. He formed a variety of unusual theories about food. He believed that carrots made a person nervous and shy, turnips friendly and happy, and French beans irritable. There is a well known anecdote that appeared in a newspaper article which stated that when he made his wife eat three pounds of French beans a day she, perhaps not unreasonably, threw the household crockery at him, so his theory became a self-fulfilling prophesy. Their different attitudes towards diet did not make them a happy match and she later sued for divorce.
In 1877, after spending some time following his wife across the country as she kept moving to avoid him, Tanner finally accepted that he was single. At this point in his life he was clearly deeply unhappy and was suffering from rheumatic pain and asthma, he wrote that
‘Life to me under the circumstances was not worth living. I had found a shortcut and made up my mind to rest from physical suffering in the arms of death’
So he fasted to, in his words, ‘starve the pain out’, ten days passed and he still felt fine and so he continued for 31 days in total, during which time he claimed that his asthma, rheumatic and chronic pain had faded away.
In 1880 a fasting maid, Mollie Flancher, who claimed that she had gained psychic abilities due to self-starvation was challenged to a 40 day round the clock observation. She refused to undergo this citing modesty as her reason on account of the examinations by the male doctors. So, Tanner took her place because he wanted to prove both the power of human will and that there was ‘something beside oxygen, hydrogen and carbon in the brain’.
Tanner began his 40-day fast on the 28th June 1880 at Clarendon Hall in New York City. The observation was led by Dr. Hammond and when Tanner found out 36 hours into his fast that Dr Hammond believed that water was a foodstuff he began to abstain from that as well, apart from occasionally gargling with water that was measured before and afterwards. However he did eventually have to relent on the 15th day of his fast and resume drinking.
By the 11th day hundreds of visitors were paying 25 cents to see him while Tanner sat there reading letters and mopping his brow with a wet cloth. Schwartz lists the vast and varied gifts Tanner received which included roast beef, cans of milk and baby food, a miniature silver spoon, and patent mattresses. Tanner even received a proposal of marriage from a woman in Philadelphia, as well as a counter offer from a Maine Museum to stuff him if he didn’t make it through his challenge. His fast was followed by the newspapers who wrote daily reports on his progress and in response Tanner challenged a journalist to a race to prove that he had not lost his strength in his fast. He won the race.
To an extent, Tanner, became an exhibit of sorts, his fasting placed him on display, and he became what Schwartz terms the ‘first hunger artist’ and this hunger artistry still occurs today as we can perhaps see echoes of Tanner’s performance in David Blaine’s starvation stunt in 2003.
On the 40th day when he broke his fast in front of 1000s of people he ate a peach, and drank a glass of rice milk, and then ate a watermelon, leading one observer to comment that he ‘eats like a pig’ which was hardly surprising after so long without food. He then consumed a beefsteak and a half-pound of sirloin in the following hours.
The New York Times referred to it as Tanner’s folly and he was viewed with suspicion by the contemporary medical profession but, despite this Tanner’s theory of fasting for health, known as therapeutic fasting, became popular. Dr. Tanner gained back 20 of the 35 pounds lost and took to the lecture circuit to persuade audiences of the restorative powers of fasting and its ability to cure disease. He eventually died aged 92, presumably of old age in relative obscurity.
To view the film I made as part of the 2012 Damaging the Body: Extraordinary Eaters series click here
Schwartz, Hillel. Never Satisfied: A Cultural History of Diets, Fantasies, and Fat. Anchor Books: New York, 1990