Jacobs Journal of Food and Nutrition

Towards a History of Prophylaxis and Dietetics against Cancer, Some Examples from Renaissance to Enlightenment

Daniel Droixhe
Department Of Medicine, Brussels And Liège Universities, French Society For The History Of Medicine, Belgium

Published on: 2019-07-05


Establishing a parallel between cancer and elephantiasis, Galen posits a link between the latter and the diet and the heat of the country. In Alexandria, many people are suffering from that disease because they eat a lot of porridge made of groats, lentils, snails and salted fish. But it is the contrary in Germany and elephantiasis almost never appears among the Scythians who drink a lot of milk. Galen’s reader may think that diet determines in the same way the occurrence of cancer as it generates a thick and melancholic humour.


Elephantiasis; Milk; Hippocrates; Diet; Laxatives


In Air, Waters and Places, Hippocrates defined health “on the basis of an equilibrium achieved between environmental forces on the one hand (wind, temperature, water, ground and food) and individual habits on the other (diet, alcohol, sexual behaviour but also work and leisure”. Thus, the “pathogenic process is a result of the overturn of equilibrium and the predominance of one of the four fluids that causes disease”, mostly by ‘plethora’, or accumulation of humours – such an accumulation producing for example the aggregation of milk that generates breast cancer, according to Hippocratic tradition. In oncogenesis, the diatetica included of course the way people eat and drink, but also a psychological factor, that is to say a “similar prudence in the control of emotions”. “All excess was life-threatening”, and for Hippocrates, “a continual serenity, which springs from a good conscience, is, of all the affections of the mind, the greatest contributor to perfect health” (quoted by Kaaartinen). Galen also developed similar ideas in his treatise Therapeutics, to Glaucon. He devoted chapter XII of the second book to the causes and treatment of cancer and elephantiasis. Concerning the treatment, he states that he has often cured this disease at its birth, especially when the melancholic tumour seems to be not too thick.