Originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 2010

“I believe no Age did ever afford more Instances of Corpulency than our own.” Physician Thomas Short, writing in 1727.

Today the language may be less quaint, but the sentiments are echoed repeatedly in the media, in Government and in medical reports all over the world. The obesity epidemic has arrived – but obesity is as old as mankind, and in a new four-part series, Dr Hilary Jones looks back into its history, and asks what can we learn today from the mistakes and successes of our overweight ancestors.


Part 1: The Exhibitors

We start with an investigation of the immensely corpulent individuals who put themselves on show to the public.

It begins in Stamford – scene of the death and extraordinary burial of Daniel Lambert, hailed in 1809 as “the most corpulent man in the history of the world”. Prof Vanessa Toulmin, of the National Fairground Archive, and Prof David Haslam, Chair of the National Obesity Forum, explore the world of the circus fat folk.

And from America, we hear a snatch of the Strates Carnival in 1941, featuring Big Bertha and Slim Jim, “the world’s strangest married couple”.

Times have changed, and nowadays the idea of obese individuals exhibiting in freak shows is highly uncomfortable. But is the portrayal of obesity in sensationalist, prurient tabloid articles, and on TV, the modern-day equivalent of the freak show?

Future programmes focus on depictions of obesity in art, music and literature; diets through the ages; and the weird, wonderful and downright dangerous obesity remedies of the past.

Part 2: Depictions of Obesity

“Let me have men about me that are fat” – Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

Continuing his series on the history of obesity, Dr Hilary Jones investigates how corpulence has been portrayed over the millennia in art, music and books.

Obese stereotypes often reveal social attitudes of the day. In literature, they range from Shakespeare’s Falstaff and Dickens’ ‘Fat Boy’, Joe, to the most famous fat character of all: Billy Bunter, from the immensely prolific pen of Frank Richards.

In art, some of the earliest sculptures in existence are small prehistoric statuettes of naked obese ‘Venuses’. Cartoons of corpulence were used for satirical effect in the prints of Hogarth and Gillray – and for bawdy humour in seaside postcards.

Music includes vintage recordings of the ‘Too Fat Polka’ and ‘Nobody Loves A Fat Man’.

There are readings, archive clips, and a visit to Tate Britain’s Rude Britannia exhibition. Contributors include Dr Fiona Haslam, a writer on Hogarth, Prof Stephan Rossner of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, and Bunter expert Dr Peter McCall.

Part 3: Diets Through The Ages

“He that dieteth himself, prolongeth his life” – Ecclesiastes.

Dr Hilary Jones continues his series on the history of obesity with a look at diets and dieting through the ages.

“It is very injurious to health to take in more food than the constitution will bear, when at the same time, one uses no exercise to carry off this excess” – Hippocrates, millennia ahead of his time, defining the energy balance equation. Plutarch, in 1AD, recognised the link between weight and health: “thin people are generally the most healthy; we should not therefore indulge our appetites with delicacies or high living, for fear of growing corpulent”.

Twenty years on from the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror grew too large to ride his horse, and decided to lose weight by consuming nothing but alcohol. Other historic diets include Cheyne’s lettuce diet, Fletcherising – “nature will castigate those who don’t masticate”, and Banting. William Banting lost almost a quarter of his weight in a few weeks by adopting a diet “low in farinaceous food” – a precursor of the modern low-carbohydrate diet. His 1863 diet book was a top-seller.

And we hear about the extraordinary exploits of the Great Eater of Kent, a “Tugmutton” who could eat an entire sheep in one sitting. There are interviews with Dr Susan Jebb of MRC Human Nutrition Research in Cambridge, and Prof David Haslam of the National Obesity Forum, plus readings and music – a popular song from 1929 encapsulating the new craze in America: the grapefruit diet.

Part 4: Pills, Potions & Quakery

“How can a magic box of pills, syrup or vegetable juice, Eradicate at once those ills, Which years of luxury produce?” – Surgeon William Wadd in 1816, warning a gullible public of the dangers of obesityremedies.

The search for a wonder-drug to cure obesity has persisted for centuries. Over the ages, possible contenders have included such unlikely remedies as deadly poisons – mercury, arsenic and strychnine “as well as goats’ ovaries, tobacco and perhaps even tape worms: ‘Eat! Eat! Eat! And always stay thin!”.

In his final programme on the history of obesity, Dr Hilary Jones focuses on Pills, Potions and Quackery.

In conversation with Professor David Haslam of the National Obesity Forum, he peruses a collection of weird and wonderful historic remedies, including the ‘King of Corpulency Cures’. And he hears about the dire consequences of some of the more dangerous remedies.

What can we learn from the past- will there ever be a miracle obesity cure?

Other contributors include pharmacist Dr Terry Maguire and leading obesity expert Professor Stephan Rossner, of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden.

Part 5: Exercise

“It is very injurious to health to take in more food than the constitution will bear, when, at the same time, one uses no exercise to carry off this excess”: Hippocrates, millennia ahead of his time, defining the ‘energy balance equation’. Celsus believed “Fat persons should be made thinner by warm bathing, strong exercise, hard beds, little sleep, proper evacuations…and one meal a day”.

At the start of National Obesity Awareness Week, Dr Hilary Jones continues his survey of the history of obesity with a look at exercise. Various forms of physical activity have been recommended over the millennia; Plutarch suggested reading aloud – “a very healthful exercise”; Socrates advocated dancing – as did FA Hornibrook, whose 1920s book targeted those who “cannot hide their protuberant belly or ponderous buttocks which handicap fat people in their cumbrous waddle through life”.

But Cardan, in the 16th century, strongly opposed exercise: “Trees live longer than animals, because they never stir from their places”. The programme also peruses an intriguing array of early 20th century exercise devices, including the Marvel Violet Ray, and the self-massaging ‘Punkt-Roller’ – “medically approved for the treatment of OBESITY”.

There are interviews with Prof Michael Lean, Dr Susan Jebb, Prof David Haslam of the National Obesity Forum, and Neville Rigby, plus readings, music, and archive: a topical song from Band Waggon in 1937 coinciding with the launch of Britain’s National Fitness Campaign, and a speech by King George VI.

Series readings by Toby Longworth and Michael Fenton-Stevens

Produced by Susan Kenyon & Ladbroke Productions (Radio) Ltd for BBC Radio 4



N.B. Some audio has been edited from the original broadcast version due to copyright restrictions


Dr Hilary Jones


Susan Kenyon/Neil Gardner


Susan Kenyon




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