1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Corpulence

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CORPULENCE (Lat. corpus, body), or Obesity (Lat. ob, against, and edere, to eat), a condition of the animal body characterized by the over-accumulation of fat under the skin and around certain of the internal organs. In all healthy persons a greater or less amount of fat is present in these parts, and serves important physiological ends, besides contributing to the proper configuration of the body (see Nutrition). Even a considerable measure of fatness, however inconvenient, is not inconsistent with a high degree of health and activity, and it is only when in great excess or rapidly increasing that it can be regarded as a pathological state (see Metabolic Diseases). The extent to which excess of fat may proceed is illustrated by numerous well-authenticated examples recorded in medical works, of which only a few can be here mentioned. Thus Bright, a grocer of Maldon, in Essex, who died in 1750, in his twenty-ninth year, weighed 616 ℔. Dr F. Dancel (Traité de l’obésité, Paris, 1863) records the case of a young man of twenty-two, who died from excessive obesity, weighing 643 ℔. In the Philosophical Transactions for 1813 a case is recorded of a girl of four years of age who weighed 256 ℔. But the most celebrated case is that of Daniel Lambert (q.v.) of Leicester, who died in 1809 in his fortieth year. He is said to have been the heaviest man that ever lived, his weight being 739 ℔ (52 st. 11 ℔). Health cannot be long maintained under excessive obesity, for the increase in bulk of the body, rendering exercise more difficult, leads to relaxation and defective nutrition of muscle, while the accumulations of fat in the chest and abdomen occasion serious embarrassment to the functions of the various organs in those cavities. In general the mental activity of the highly corpulent becomes impaired, although there have always been many notable exceptions to this rule.

Various causes are assigned for the production of corpulence (see Metabolic Diseases). In some families there exists an hereditary predisposition to an obese habit of body, the manifestation of which no precautions as to living appear capable of averting. But it is unquestionable that certain habits favour the occurrence of corpulence. A luxurious, inactive, or sedentary life, with over-indulgence in sleep and absence of mental occupation, are well recognized predisposing causes. The more immediate exciting causes are over-feeding and the large use of fluids of any kind, but especially alcoholic liquors. Fat persons are not always great eaters, though many of them are, while leanness and inordinate appetite are not infrequently associated. Still, it may be stated generally that indulgence in food, beyond what is requisite to repair daily waste, goes towards the increase of flesh, particularly of fat. This is more especially the case when the non-nitrogenous (the fatty, saccharine and starchy) elements of the food are in excess. The want of adequate bodily exercise will in a similar manner produce a like effect, and it is probable that many cases of corpulence are to be ascribed to this cause alone, from the well-known facts that many persons of sedentary occupation become stout, although of most abstemious habits, and that obesity frequently comes on in the middle-aged and old, who take relatively less exercise than the young, in whom it is comparatively rare. Women are more prone to become corpulent than men, and appear to take on this condition more readily after the cessation of the function of menstruation.

For the prevention of corpulence and the reduction of superfluous fat many expedients have been resorted to, and numerous remedies recommended. These have included bleeding, blistering, purging, starving (see Fasting), the use of different kinds of baths, and of drugs innumerable. The drinking of vinegar was long popularly, but erroneously, supposed to be a remedy for obesity. It is related of the marquis of Cortona, a noted general of the duke of Alva, that by drinking vinegar he so reduced his body from a condition of enormous obesity that he could fold his skin about him like a garment.

In 1863 a pamphlet entitled “Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public by William Banting,” in which was narrated the remarkable experience of the writer in accomplishing the reduction of his own weight in a short space of time by the adoption of a particular kind of diet, started the modern dietetic treatment, at first called “Banting” after the author. After trying almost every known remedy without effect, Banting was induced, on the suggestion of Mr Harvey, a London aurist, to place himself upon an entirely new form of diet, which consisted chiefly in the removal, as far as possible, of all saccharine, starchy and fat food, the reduction of liquids, and the substitution of meat or fish and fruit in moderate quantity at each meal, together with the daily use of an antacid draught. Under this regimen his weight was reduced 46 ℔ in the course of a few weeks, while his health underwent a marked improvement. His experience, as might have been expected, induced many to follow his example; and since then various regimens have been propounded, all aiming at treating corpulence on modern physiological principles (see also Dietetics, Metabolic Diseases and Nutrition). It is important, however, to bear in mind that the treatment should be followed under medical advice and observation; for, however desirable it be to get rid of superabundant fat, it would be manifestly no gain were this to be achieved by the sacrifice of the general health.