Vitalogy: An amazing but very amusing medical Encyclopedia

We all have to thank Eddie Vedder for our curiosity in a very interesting home medical encyclopedia first published in 1899. It was at the insistence of Vedder, that rock band Pearl Jam would use concepts (of life) from the book for their third album. (I have no doubt PJ saw the lunacy in much of its content with only an artistic license in mind at reproducing it.) Upon it’s debut in 1994, Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy had almost sold a million copies in its first week and with it came a sense of aroused interest in its concept. I say, aroused, tongue-in-cheek because within the pages of the album booklet, we will find some of the most amusingly outdated excerpts from the actual 1899 book. One of my favourite passages reveals the shame and dangers of masturbation or otherwise referred to as self-pollution by its author Dr. E. H. Ruddock. It says:

“There are various names given to the unnatural and degrading vice of producing venereal excitement by the hand, or other means. Unfortunately, it is a vice by no means uncommon among the youth of both sexes, and is frequently continued into riper years. The subject is an important one. Few, perhaps, ever think, or ever know, how many of the unfortunate inmates of our lunatic asylums have been sent there by this dreadful vice. Were the whole truth upon this subject known, it would alarm parents, as well as the guilty victims of the vice, more than the dread of cholera or small-pox.”


It is easy for us to laugh about it now, but in the early part of the twentieth century, so much of this was taken seriously. Between 1899 and 1930 (when an updated version of the original book was published) millions of people referred to or likely bookmarked the most important pages that were relevant to their own health and well-being. Over 1000 pages in length, there was something in it for everyone from anatomy, hygiene, physical exercise, diseases to moral advice. Don’t forget readers, masturbation will lead to ill-health and blindness!

On the subject of marriage advice, you are warned about whom to marry or not to marry. Don’t let your loins guide you to whom you should marry. Sexual excitement can often be misinterpreted as love, but you don’t have to marry because of it. Fair enough? My favourite line is:

“Don’t marry a girl whose chief aim in life is dress; who hangs around dry goods or millinery stores like butterflies around a gorgeous flower.”

There also never seems to be a hint of uncertainty when giving advice in this book. Whether it is for serious advice on ailments or putting children to bed properly. I particularly enjoy the passage of the importance of a foot bath before bed.

“The first care of the mother should be to see that the child has a foot bath every night in warm weather and every second night or third at other times. No woman who neglects this simple duty has a right to assume the rearing of a child.”

Occasionally, its author also makes comparisons to man and nature. For insistence, like a plant needs sunlight to help the process of photosynthesis, man needs doses of sunlight to help

“start every little nerve cell in the body into active vibration…”

Okay, sounds logical, but what about prolonged exposure to sunlight? Skin cancer? Don’t worry, there is a cure for that too!


What bothers me further is the unrealistic expectation that we can live to be 75 years of age and then a further 75 more ! I cannot fathom the logic or reasoning to such an astonishing statement. Life expectancy in 1899 was around 50 years of age. Did the good doctor all of a sudden discover the elixir of life? In an earlier section he also says,

“we know little of the life of early mankind, but we are reasonably sure that some lived to be 500 and up to 900 years of age.”

All of a sudden we can attain extraordinary long age? I only know of Yoda, the fictional character from Star Wars, ever being that old!


There is a lot more we could talk about or should I say point out that is wrong with this book. But I wont. I have had the good fortune to leaf through this interesting piece of literary history and invite you to do the same. If you were to pick up a copy of Vitalogy, you too would instantly realise that through no fault of its own, it has obviously become very outdated and unreliable in its analysis. Though I have to admit there are still many sections throughout that are useful from advice on personal hygiene to the dangers of tobacco (smoking). However, with the advent and advance of the study of medicine after the Second World War, much of its encyclopedic advice no longer had a place along side today’s medical journals. The only real place for it is probably the coffee table, where your guests can marvel at its thickness and remarkable images. Remedies or old wives tales simply don’t have a place in modern medicine anymore. All we can do is be amused by it. It is definitely a sobering reminder of how far we have come in medicine in the 21st century.


Photo Credit: All colour images of the vintage version of the medical book Vitalogy are used by me with permission of Patti Friday and may not be copied or re-used for any purpose without her permission. Patti mostly micro blogs nowadays on instagram. Can you also see the latest news from her via Twitter account @pattifriday