APPLE A DAY KEEPS THE DOCTOR AWAY": TRADITIONAL AND MODERN
ASPECTS OF ENGLISH MEDICAL PROVERBS*
health of the mind and the body has preoccupied people since
the beginning of human existence. The classical Latin
proverb "Mens sana in corpore sano" formulated by the
satirical Roman poet Juvenal (60?-140?) and appearing in
English translation as "A sound mind in a sound body" for
the first time in the year 1578 (Wilson 1970:755) merely
summarizes in a typically proverbial parallel structure a
bit of folk wisdom based on generations of common-sense
medical observation and experience that continues to be as
valid a truth today as it was centuries ago. The same is
true for such general health rules as "Diseases come on
horseback, but go away on foot", "Health is better than
wealth", "Desperate diseases must have desperate cures",
"Bitter pills may have blessed effects", and of course also
the Latin proverb "Similia similibus curantur" or its
English translation "Like cures like" which became the
underlying principle of homeopathy (Trºmpy 1966). Such
ancient medical advice in the form of folk proverbs was
translated in the Middle Ages into most vernacular languages
(Gluski 1971:190-193), making these proverbs part of an
internationally disseminated corpus.
exists, however, also a considerable number of medical
proverbs which originated and gained currency in individual
ethnic or national languages (Kelly 1879:199-203, Christy
1887:489-492). There is not a proverb collection that
doesn't contain some proverbs commenting on matters of
health or illness, and special collections of medical
proverbs have also been assembled dating back to the late
Middle Ages (Moll 1958:534-537). An early specialized
English collection of medical proverbs is included in John
Ray's (1627-1705) A Compleat Collection of
English Proverbs (1670) with the telling title "Proverbs and Proverbial
Observations belonging to Health, Diet and Physick" (pp.
25-32). Here we find already such well-known health rules as
"After dinner sit a while, after supper walk a mile", "A
good surgeon must have an eagle's eye, a lion's heart, and a
lady's hand", "Butter is gold in the morning, silver at
noon, lead at night", "One hour's sleep before midnight is
worth two hours after", and "The best physicians are Dr.
Diet, Dr. Quiet, and Dr. Merryman". Vincent Stuckey Lean
(1820-1899) published in 1902 dozens of English and other
European medical proverbs dealing with dietary matters,
drink, fruit, meals, vegetables, food as well as health and
sickness (Lean 1902:I,478-509). It is here where we find
such everyday bits of wisdom as "Eat to live and not live to
eat", "Cider on beer, never fear; beer upun cider, makes a
bad rider", "The first step to health is to know that we are
sick", and "Every disease will have its course". While these
texts are admittedly not particularly enlightening from a
scientific point of view, they nevertheless express some
common-sense attitudes about basic health matters. Notice
though the ironic tones of such proverbs as "Sickness soaks
the purse", "God does the cure and the physician takes the
fee for it", "One doctor makes work for another", and
"Doctors make the very worst patients". Here the folk
comments on some basic problems of the medical profession
which are issues of controversy as much today as in former
times (Bebermeyer 1978, Militz 1981).
there is no doubt that most so-called medical proverbs are
rather general statements that do not deal with very
specific ailments or diseases. As Russell A. Elmquist has
noted in an essay on "English Medical Proverbs", proverbs
hardly "give specific medical advice of a scientific nature"
(Elmquist 1934-1935:78, see also Garrison 1928, and Taylor
1931:121-129). For the modern physician, surgeon or even
medical professor, these health proverbs most likely appear
a bit trite and certainly unscientific as far as the modern
medical profession is concerned. Ancient proverbs obviously
cannot compete with the scientific wisdom of scholarly books
and journal articles on diseases that were not even known a
decade ago. We thus have no proverbs about legionaire's
disease, organ transplants or AIDS, but there are dozens of
proverbs about general health problems, such as the common
cold, normal diet, sleep, hygiene, etc. (Loux and Richard
text of this article is published in De
Proverbio - Issue 1:1995, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.
four proverbs discussed in some detail in these pages
represent the most popular medical wisdom expressed in folk
proverbs. They do not contain scientific information based
on laboratory research, but they are rather common-sense
expressions based on generations of observation and
experience. As with anything in life, their advice should be
taken with moderation or cum grano
salis. Already Hippocrates (460?-377?) argued that "Everything in
excess is opposed to nature" (Stevenson 1948:719), and that
is certainly true also for preventive medicine, sleeping
patterns, taking care of colds and fevers, and eating
apples. The fact that these proverbs give only general
medical advice for healthy living will prevent them from
becoming obsolete as many folk remedies have done. Our four
proverbs are general enough that they have withstood the
test of time and science, and it is our prognosis that they
will continue to be used by people of all walks of life for
generations to come. While modern medicine advances with
breath-taking speed, whose intricacies are to be understood
only be the experts and appreciated by those who benefit
from them, traditional medical proverbs remind us of the
simple pleasures of life to be enjoyed as long as we adhere
to everyday health rules. As stated at the beginning of
these remarks, there are dozens of other sensible medical
proverbs commenting on health and illness, and there are, of
course, literally hundreds of general proverbs advising us
how to live properly both medically and morally. Some of
these gems of wisdom continue to have significant ethical
value for people of a modern society. The platitude that "An
apple a day makes 365 apples a year" (Mieder 1989:271) could
therefore easily be varied to read "A proverb a day makes
365 proverbs a year", and these proverbs are certainly food
for thought just as apples are food for the body to assure
that we continue to enjoy healthy minds in healthy bodies.
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article is published in De
Proverbio - Issue
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