A Sound Mind in a Sound Body: Exhibit Explores Health Advice for Scholars and Students

By Thomas J. Gillan, Josiah Charles Trent Intern, History of Medicine Collections

“It is an old complaint,” wrote the eighteenth-century Swiss physician Samuel-André-Auguste-David Tissot, “that study, though essentially necessary to the mind, is hurtful to the body.”

Since antiquity, much ink has been spilled on the potential health hazards of a life of sedentary study, which can include loss of vision, cramped posture, consumption, melancholia, bad digestion—even hemorrhoids.

Given the dire nature of these warnings, scholars and students have for centuries turned to medical guides for advice on how best to counteract the effects of “hard study.” While such guides often vary as to specifics, all commend some form of attention to diet, exercise, and regimen as the key to a long and healthy life. The common refrain uniting them all is that ancient ideal—mens sana in corpore sano, a sound mind in a sound body.

A new exhibit in the Trent History of Medicine Room, on display through July 14, traces the history of medical advice written specifically for scholars and students—including Duke students. A few highlights are shown here.

Johann Rudolf Schellenberg. Freund Heins Erscheinungen in Holbeins Manier. Winterthur, 1785.

This satirical image by Johann Schellenberg (1740-1806) of a scholar being crushed to death under the weight of his own books is an ironic reminder of the futility of learning and of the scholar’s inevitable fate.

[Giles] Everard, Panacea; or the Universal Medicine, Being a Discovery of the Wonderfull Vertues of Tobacco Takin in a Pipe, with Its Operation and Use both in Physick and Chyrurgery. London, 1659.
Upon its introduction to Europe in the sixteenth century, tobacco attracted both praise and scorn. Promoters celebrated it as a stimulus for inspiration and thought and touted its supposed medicinal benefits. Others condemned it as an idle vice. Giles Everard, a sixteenth-century Dutch physician, wrote in praise of “this noble Plant.” His Panacea, first published in Latin in 1587, was translated into English in 1659. Its frontispiece depicts Everard at his desk, surrounded by scholarly trappings, with a pipe in one hand and an open book in the other. The image establishes a direct link between smoking and scholarship. “Scholars use it much,” writes Everard, “and many grave and great men take Tobacco to make them more serviceable in their callings.”

Calvin Cutter. A Treatise on Anatomy, Physiology, and Hygiene: Designed for Colleges, Academies, and Families. Philadelphia, 1852.

For nineteenth-century education reformers, the cultivation of the mind went hand-in-hand with the cultivation of the body. Physiology became an increasingly important part of the curriculum, as indicated by the proliferation of textbooks on the subject, such as this one by New Hampshire physician and popular lecturer Calvin Cutter (1807-1873). These “catechisms of health,” as one historian calls them, played an important role in acquainting schoolchildren with the “laws of health.”

Catharine E. Beecher. Physiology and Calisthenics for Schools and Families. New York, 1856.

The nineteenth century also opened new educational opportunities for women. Physiology, hygiene, and physical education were important parts of the curriculum at American female academies and seminaries. An advocate of women’s education, Catharine Beecher (1800-1878) founded the Harford Female Seminary in 1823 and the Western Female Institute in 1831. After suffering from an illness, Beecher developed a system of calisthenic exercises, popularized in her Physiology and Calisthenics for Schools and Families (1856). “When physical education takes the proper place in our schools,” Beecher claimed that “young girls will be trained in the class-rooms to move head, hands and arms gracefully; to sit, to stand, and to walk properly, and to pursue calisthenic exercises for physical development as a regular school duty as much as their studies.”

“Health and Strength,” Wilbur Wade Card Papers, Duke University Archives.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, physical education had become a staple of most college curricula, even as colleges were beginning to participate in organized sports. Wilbur Wade Card (1873-1948) entered Trinity College (now Duke) in 1895. After graduating, Card left Durham to pursue graduate study in physical education at Harvard. In 1902, President John Carlisle Kilgo invited him to return as the director of Trinity’s new physical education program, a position Card held until his death. For one dollar, Card sold packets of cards like these containing “Health Hints” and instructions for various calisthenic poses.