Benjamin Franklin was a man for the ages.
His story is a familiar one. Born in Boston in 1706. The youngest of 17 children. Moved to Philadelphia in 1723. He gained fame for his experiments with electricity, and was a philosopher, diplomat, inventor, and scientist. He also was a specialist in another matter that remains relevant today. As he wrote, “in digesting our common Food, there is created or produced in the Bowels of human Creatures, a great Quantity of Wind.”
That was fitting. Probably the most famous Philadelphian, Franklin had great interest in health and science. He was an early innovator in helping to prevent lead poisoning, he worked to discredit a medical healing cult known as “Mesmerism,” he was the inventor of bifocals, supporter of inoculation against smallpox, and he promoted a moderate diet and exercise.
Franklin’s popular Poor Richard’s Almanac was filled with health advice, and he was well-known for his maxims, like
-Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise
-Be not sick too late, nor well too soon
-Time is an herb that cures all diseases
-Eat to live and not live to eat.
Less known, perhaps, was Franklin’s concern with the science of digestion. In response to a call for scientific papers from the Royal Academy of Brussels, he wrote the following proposal:
Permit me then humbly to propose one of that sort for your consideration, and through you, if you approve it, for the serious Enquiry of learned Physicians, Chemists, &c. of this enlightened Age. It is universally well known, That in digesting our common Food, there is created or produced in the Bowels of human Creatures, a great Quantity of Wind.
That the permitting this Air to escape and mix with the Atmosphere, is usually offensive to the Company, from the fetid Smell that accompanies it. That all well-bred People therefore, to avoid giving such Offence, forcibly restrain the Efforts of Nature to discharge that Wind. That so retain’d contrary to Nature, it not only gives frequently great present Pain, but occasions future Diseases, such as habitual Cholics, Ruptures, Tympanies, &c. often destructive of the Constitution, & sometimes of Life itself. Were it not for the odiously offensive Smell accompanying such Escapes, polite People would probably be under no more Restraint in discharging such Wind in Company, than they are in spitting, or in blowing their Noses.
My Prize Question therefore should be, To discover some Drug wholesome & not disagreable, to be mix’d with our common Food, or Sauces, that shall render the natural Discharges of Wind from our Bodies, not only inoffensive, but agreable as Perfumes.
Most of us, of course, are not taught much about Benjamin Franklin the funny guy. Franklin’s proposal was actually a satiric essay on the passing of gas—he was mocking the Royal Academy and other scientific societies for focusing on what he believed to be trivial matters, rather than the important challenges—both philosophical and scientific—of the day. Franklin’s essay is a good reminder to us all that flatulence isn’t just the property of school-boy jokes and old men with bad digestion.
This “lecture”—actually, a somewhat more bawdy version of it—was presented as part of the monthly show Study Hall at the Philadelphia Improv Theater. At Study Hall, Michael Yudell and guests offer tales from the history of medicine and science, which are warped into comedy by a cast of amazing improv comics. Study Hall runs the fourth Saturday of every month. Come see our next show this Saturday, Aug. 23, at 7:30p.m. at the Adrienne Theater, 2030 Sansom St., Philadelphia.
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