Download Full Text (1.7 MB)


The belief that one's health is a result of their behavior has persisted throughout much of history. At times, these beliefs were so direct as to blame any and all illness on the "sins" of the victim. In some ways, we still see these beliefs persist today. While we now understand many of the true causes of illness, we continue to believe that poor behaviors can result in poor health outcomes, and often treat people suffering from conditions they "brought on themselves" accordingly. The object of this research is to better understand how American societal beliefs of the causes of illness changed and adjusted to the rapid advances in medical knowledge that occurred during the late nineteenth century. While there is some research on the effects of germ theory on American society, most notably by Nancy Tomes in The Gospel of Germs (1998), there is little to no research exploring how existing perceptions of the causes of illness evolved with these changes. The research for this study was conducted using the "Cookery and Culture" collection from the Special Collections Archives of Utah State University. This selection of books relating to food, nutrition, and health ranges from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. The books were divided using the "eras" of germ theory defined by Tomes, keyword searches performed to find relevant material, and several books then selected that provided a strong representation of both the medical literature available to the average American household and the medical and scientific understanding of the era. Using this methodology, I discovered that whatever the common understanding of the cause of illness was, the conviction that immorality predisposed a person to illness persisted; yet also found an even stronger, more persistent belief that those who maintained healthy and virtuous habits could be spared from harm.


Utah State University

Publication Date



Life Sciences | Nutrition

Belief, Virtue, and Illness in Late-Nineteenth Century Domestic Manuals

Included in

Nutrition Commons