The Victorian Undertaker Who Launched the World’s First Low-Carb Diet

In the fall of 1852, it seemed that all of London turned out for the funeral parade of Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington. The procession took 4½ hours to wind its way through the city streets, and no expense had been spared. At St. Paul’s Cathedral, 6,000 new gaslights had been installed for the occasion, and the body of the “Iron Duke” was carried on an ornate 10-ton funeral car studded with spears and streamers, his corpse nested in a mahogany coffin. It wasn’t just a funeral — it was an event. It isn’t the elaborate funeral arrangements that undertaker William Banting provided for which he's remembered today, but rather for the fact that he became an unwitting diet guru. After the Duke of Wellington’s funeral, Banting found himself newly retired and deeply unhappy. At just 5’5” tall, he weighed a whopping 202 pounds. “Of all the parasites that affect humanity, I do not know of, nor can I imagine, any more distressing than that of obesity,” said Banting. After trying every diet available at the time, without success, he came up with the idea of de-emphasizing starchy and sweet foods, which he believed tended to create fat. Instead, he began eating lean meat and fish, fresh fruits and vegetables, and steered clear of alcohol. Not only did Banting’s medical issues improve, he began to sleep more soundly and watched the weight steadily come off. In little more than a year, he had lost 46 pounds and had taken 12 inches off of his waist. None of this seems unusual in the context of a highly media-savvy weight-loss industry that has now ballooned to more than $60 billion in volume in the U.S. alone. What’s different is that Banting refused to profit from his publication, Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public. He printed the first two editions of the diet pamphlet at his own cost and donated the profits to charity. The former undertaker lived to a ripe old age of 81, finally succumbing to a nasty case of bronchitis. Little did he know that his unusual take on how to lose weight would launch the world’s first low-carb craze.