Present-day readers will no doubt be unperturbed by Dr Brandreth Symonds’ arguments that too much fat is detrimental to one’s health, i.e. overweight individuals are at greater risk of heart disease and diabetes and an expanding abdominal girth increases mortality risks.
Living during what the World Health Organization has dubbed a ‘globesity’ epidemic, we take these modern medical facts on fat for granted. But to Symonds’ contemporaries, these were revelations. Symonds’ paper, ‘The Influence of Overweight and Underweight on Vitality’,1 marks both an important shift in popular and medical thought on body weight and the birth of a trend to quantify and track weight through use of height and weight tables.
In the following, I discuss why these actuarial findings on this relationship between weight and mortality were so novel at the time by tracing (i) the evolving cultural conception of weight, (ii) the use of actuarial data to substantiate medical opinion and (iii) the development of height and weight tables as a means of social control.