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Historical Texts:
The Physiology of Digestion by Andrew Combe, M.B. (1837)


The Physiology of Digestion by Andrew Combe, M.D., Forth American Edition, was published By Marsch, Capen & Lyon in Boston in 1837. Andrew Combe was a physician in ordinary to their Majesties the King and Queen of the Belgians, and a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. The third edition of this book was sold in 3000 copies in two years. The text of this book of 310 pages will be found here, completely unchanged.

The present volume is essentially a continuation of the work fist published about two years ago, under the title of "The Principles of Physiology applied to the Preservation of Health and to the Improvement of Physical and Mental Education;" and its object is the same - namely, to lay before the public a plain and intelligible description of the structure and uses of some of the more important organs of the human body, and to show how information of this kind may be usefully applied in practical life.

In "The Principles of Physiology," the structure and functions of the skin, muscles, bones, lungs, and nervous system, the laws or conditions of their healthy action, and the unsuspected origin of many of their diseases in infringements of these laws, were explained in succession and at considerable length; and the means by which their health and efficiency might best be secured were pointed out. It was stated that, in selecting these organs as subjects for discussion, I had been guided by the desire to notice in preference those functions which are most influential in their operation on the general system, and at the same time least familiarly known; and that, if the attempt to convey the requisite information in a manner suited to the general reader should prove successful, I would afterward prepare a similar account of others, in the right understanding and management of which our interest is not less deeply involved, but in regard to which much ignorance continues nevertheless to prevail, even among the most liberally educated classes of society.

The numerous proofs which I received of the utility of my former works, not only from professinal and literary journals, but also from individuals previously unknown to me, - many of them guardians and instructers of youth, speaking from personal experience, - together with the rapid sale of three editions (the last consisting of 3000 copies) in two years, soon completely satisfied me that I had neither been deceived as to the real importance of physiological knowledge to the general public, nor been altogether unsuccessful in the method of conveying it. Thus encouraged, accordingly, I cheerfully resumed my labours, and began the preparation of the treatise now submitted to the indulgent consideration of the reader.

The matters discussed on the present occasion relate chiefly to the function of digestion and the principles of dietetics; and in selecting them I have been guided by the same principle as before. It may, at first sight, be doubted whether I have not exceeded proper bounds in thus dedicating a whole volume to the consideration of a single subject; but the more we consider the real complication of the function of digestion, - the extensive influence which it exercises at every period of life over the whole of the bodily organization, - the degree to which its morbid derangements undermine health, happiness, and social usefulness, and especially the share which they have in the production of scrofulous and consumptive, as well as of nervous and mental affections, - we shall become more and more convinced of the deep practical interest which attaches to a minute acquaintance sith the laws by which it is regulated. In infancy, errors in diet, and drangement of the digestive organs, are admitted to be the principal causes of the striking mortality which occurs in that period of life. In youth and maturity, the same influence is recognised, not only in the numerous forms of disease directly traceable to that origin, but also in the universal practice of referring every obscure or anomalous disorder to derangement of the stomach or bowels. Hence, too, the interest which has always been felt by the public in the perusal of books on dietetics and indigestion; and hence the prevalent custom of using purgatives as remedies for every disorder, very often with good, but nor unfrequently with most injurious effects.

Numerous and popular, however, as writings on dietetics have been, and excellent as are many of them from the earliest ages, santioned by the warm approval of every successive generation, it is singular how very trifling their influence has been, and continues to be, in altering the habits of those to whom they are addressed. In a general way, we all acknowledge that diet is a powerful agent in modifying the animal economy; yet, from our conduct, it might justly be inferred, that we either regarded it as totally devoid of influence, or remained in utter ignorance of its mode of operation, being left to the guidance of chance alone, or of notions picked up at random, often at variance with reason, and, it may be, in contradiction even with our own daily experience.

The cause of this extraordinary anomaly - and it is of consequence to remark it - seems to be, not so much the absolute want of valuable information, as the faulty manner in which the subject is usually considered. In many of our best works, the relation subsisting between the human body on the one hand, and the qualities of the alimentary substances on the other, as the only solid principle on which their proper adaptation to each other can be based, is altogether lost sight of; so that, while the attention is carefully directed to the consideration of the abstract qualities of the different kinds of aliment, little or no regard is paid to the relation in which they stand to the individual constitution, as modified by age, sex, season, and circumstances, or to the observance of the fundamental laws of digestion. And hence, although these conditions are not unfrequently of much greater importance to the general health than even the right selection of food, yet, when indigestion arises from neglecting them, the food alone is blamed, and erroneous conclusions are drawn, by relying on which upon future occasions, we may easily be led into still more serious mistakes.

It is, indeed, from being left in this way without any guiding principle to direct their experience, and test the accuracy of the precepts laid down to dhem for the reulation of their conduct, that many persons begin by being bewildered by the numerous discrepances which they meet with between facts and doctrine - between counsel and experience, and end by becoming entirely skeptical on the subject of all dietetic rules whatever, and regarding them as mere theoretical effusions, based on fancy, and undeserving of a monent´s consideration.

The true remedy of this state of things is, not to turn away in disgust and despair, but to resort to a more rational mode of inquiry - certain that, in proportion as we advance, some useful result will reward our labours. Such, accordingly, has been may aim in the present publication; and if I shall be found to have been even moderately successful in attaining it, I shall rejoice in the confident conviction that others will be led to still more positive and beneficial results. Utility, and not novelty, has been my great object throughout; and therefore, although in some instances I have perhaps regarded known facts in a new point of view, and deduced from them practical inferences of considerable value, I lay no claim to any farther originality, except such as is implied in the adoption of what I conceive to be an improved mode of investigation; and if I have anywhere used expressions which may seem either to do injustice to others, or to arrogate too much credit to myself, it has been entirely without any such design, and, consequently, I will be prompt to acknowledge my error and rectify the involuntary mistake.

In preparing the present volume for the press I have derived the utmost advantage from a very valuable work by Dr. Beaumont, an American writer, which, though scarcely at all known in this country, contains an authentic record of some of the most curious and instructive observations which have ever been made on the process of digestion. That excellent and enlightened physiologist had the rare good fortune to meet with a case where an artificial opening into the stomach existed, through which he could see every thing that took place during the progress of healthy digestion; and, with the most disinterested zeal and admirable perseverance, he proceeded to avail himself of the opportunity thus afforded of advancing human knowledge, by engaging the patient, at heavy expense, to live with him for several years, and become the subject of numerous and carefully conducted experiments. Of the results thus obtained, I have not scrupled to make the freest and most ample use; both because they illustrate almost every point of importance connected with digestion, and because, from Dr. Beaumont´s work being still inaccessible to the British reader, it is a bare act of justice towards him, and also the best way of fulfilling the objects he had in view, to make its contents known as videly as possible: for wherever they are known they will be acknowledged to redound to his credit, not less as a man than as a philosopher.

In the course of these pages the reader will occasionally meet with repetitions, which he may, perhaps with justice, think unnecessary. The only apology I have to offer for them is, that the intimate manner in which the different functions are connected with each other, sometimes made it possible to explain one without referring to the rest; and also that, my prime objects being to render the meaning unequivocally plain, and impress the subject deeply upon the reader´s mind, I thought it better to risk occasional repetition of an important truth, than to leave it in danger of being vaguely apprehended, or its enunciation in any degree obscure. For these reasons, it is hoped that the fault - if such is - will be leniently overlooked.

Those who wish to study more fully the subject of dietetics, will find much useful information in Dr Hodgkin´s "Lectures on the Means of Promoting and Preserving Health;" Professor Dunglison "On the Influence of Atmosphere and Locality, Change of Air and Climate, Seasons, Food, Clothing, Bathing, Exercise, Sleep, Corporeal and Intellectual Pursuits, &c. &c. &c. on Human Health;" Dr. Paris "On Diet;" and Dr. Kilgour´s "Lectures on the Ordinary Agents of Life, as applicable to Therapeutics and Hygiéne."

BRUSSELS, April,1836.

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