Vegan diet history and its heroes

vegan diet heroes

What is veganism and where did it start? Who was the first person to call himself a vegan and who were the famous vegetarians in history? Even if the terminology is quite recent, you might be surprised to discover that some of the most acclaimed and notorious minds in history promoted and followed the vegan diet themselves for various reasons.


Veganism is the practice of abstaining from the use of animal products, particularly in diet, and an associated philosophy that rejects the commodity status of animals. A follower of the diet or the philosophy is known as a vegan (Wikipedia). A vegetarian diet consists of vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, and sometimes eggs or dairy products. In addition, a vegan diet is exclusively a plant-based diet. Vegans do not eat foods that come from animals, including dairy products and eggs. In other words, vegans are vegetarians with an exclusively plant-based diet with no exceptions to their philosophy. Even if humans are vegetarians by nature, the term vegan is quite recent and only known since 1944.

The first vegetarian society was formed in 1847 in England and three years later, Rev.Sylvester Graham co-founded the American Vegetarian Society. In November 1944, a British woodworker named Donald Watson announced that he was going to create a new term called “vegan”, to describe people who did not eat dairy and eggs. That is to say, Watson believed that a new term was needed to differentiate the vegetarians from those who go even further and do not consume any of the products from animal origin.

Veganism and vegetarianism in Ancient Philosophy

The documented vegan diet history starts with the first vegetarians were known as Pythagoreans until the middle of the 19th century, after the Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras, who as early as 500 BC promoted the benevolence among all species, including humans. Many people consider Pythagoras as “the father of vegetarianism”.

In his poem Metamorphoses, Ovid evoked the passionate pleas of Pythagoras for people to abandon animal sacrifice and abstain from eating flesh: “Alas, what wickedness to swallow flesh into our own flesh, to fatten our greedy bodies by cramming in other bodies, to have one living creature fed by the death of another!”

Pythagoras also believed that “as long as man continues to be the ruthless destroyer of lower living beings, he will never know health or peace. For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other.”

Another vegetarian Greek philosopher was Plutarch (46-c. 120 CE). In his essay On the Eating of Flesh he stated that the human digestive system cannot handle flesh and that humans do not have the claws and fangs necessary for the satisfaction of a carnivorous appetite. In “Moralia”, he wrote: “But for the sake of some little mouthful of flesh, we deprive a soul of the sun and light, and of that proportion of life and time it had been born into the world to enjoy.”

The Greek philosopher, Porphyry (234 – 305 A.D.) who also embraced the vegetarian diet, mentioned: “A man who eats a harmless diet will be less inclined to slaughter another man’s flesh since the idea would be unthinkable” (“On Abstinence from Animal Food”).

Vegan diet in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism

The followers of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism also had an important place in the vegan diet history, believing that humans should not inflict pain on other animals. “Meat-eating, I have not permitted to anyone”. (Lankavatara)

“Monks, a lay follower should not engage in five types of business. Which five? Business in weapons, business in human beings, business in meat, business in intoxicants, and business in poison.” (Gautama Buddha, Anguttara Nikaya)

“If meat is not eaten by anybody for any reason, there will be no destroyer of life.” (Gautama Buddha, Lankavatara Sutra)

“I think that our basic nature as human beings is to be vegetarian — making every effort not to harm other living beings. If we apply our intelligence, we can create a sound, nutritional program. Above all, it is very dangerous to ignore the suffering of any sentient being.” (14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso)

Vegan diet supporters during the Renaissance period

Throughout the history, other prominent figures supported the vegetarian and/or vegan diet and fought against animal cruelty.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519, Italian scientist, painter, sculptor) – considered to be the first great vegetarian of modern Western civilization. He was an animal rights activist and vegetarian from ethical reasons. His love for animals was so great that he would even buy the caged birds and pets that were for sale for food in Italy just to let them free. As mentioned in Merijkowsky’s Romance of Leonardo da Vinci–he felt that a time would come when the killing of animals would be looked on in the same way that the murder of a person is viewed.

” Truly man is the king of beasts, for his brutality exceeds theirs. We live by the death of others; we are burial places. I have since an early age abjured the use of meat”.

“if you are as you have described yourself the king of animals – it would be better for you to call yourself the king of the beasts since you are the greatest of them all!!! – why do you not help them so that they may presently be able to give you their young in order to gratify your palate, for the sake of which you have tried to make yourself a tomb for all the animals.” (Leonardo’s notebook)

William Shakespeare (1564-1616 English poet) is another famous vegetarian in the vegan diet history.

“Thou never didst them wrong, nor no man wrong;
And as the butcher takes away the calf
And binds the wretch, and beats it when it strays,
Bearing it to the bloody slaughter-house,
Even so remorseless have they borne him hence;
And as the dam runs lowing up and down,
Looking the way her harmless young one went,
And can do nought but wail her darling’s loss. “

Early modern history

Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was an English mathematician, physicist, astronomer, theologian, and author who is widely recognized as one of the most influential scientists of all time and as a key figure in the scientific revolution. (Wikipedia). Newton was a vegetarian and an animal lover and even invented the cat doors—the special doors or flaps that allow cats to enter and leave a house (Ryder, 1998, p. 15).

 “It was frightful for him to believe that animals have the ability to feel and at the same time, to cause their suffering. On this point his morality was in accord with his philosophy. He yielded but only with repugnance to the barbarous custom of supporting ourselves upon the blood and flesh of beings like ourselves, whom we caress, and he never permitted in his own house the putting them to death by slow and exquisite modes of killing for the sake of making the food more delicious. This compassion, which he felt for no other animals, culminated in true charity for men. In truth, without humanity, a virtue which comprehends all virtues, the name of philosopher would be little deserved.” (Voltaire, Elements de la Philosophie de Newton, 1741)

Voltaire (1694- 1778) a French Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher. He followed the vegetarian diet, even if he never called himself one, probably because this term did not exist at that time.

He writes in the Philosophical Dictionary: “How pitiful, and what poverty of mind, to have said that the animals are machines deprived of understanding and feeling . . . “

“Men fed upon carnage, and drinking strong drinks, have all an empoisoned and acrid blood which drives them mad in a hundred different ways.”

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques (1712 -1778, French philosopher). While not a consistent abstainer, Rousseau’s writings had a strong influence over the future dietary movements and vegan history.

 “All savages are cruel, and it is not their morals that urge them to be so; this cruelty proceeds from their food. They go to war as to the chase and treat men as they do bears.”

Firstly, he considered vegetarianism to be the ideal diet for people and he stated that children have a natural preference for vegetarian, rather than flesh, foods. For example, in “Emile” he mentioned: “One of the proofs that the taste of flesh is not natural to man is the indifference which children exhibit for that sort of meat, and the preference they all give to vegetable foods, such as milk-porridge, pastry, fruits, etc.

Furthermore, he stated that we should not change this primitive taste and not render them carnivorous, if not for health reasons, at least for the sake of their character. It is certain that great eaters of flesh are, in general, crueler and more ferocious than other men.

“The animals you eat are not those who devour others; you do not eat the carnivorous beasts, but you take them as your pattern. You only hunger for the sweet and gentle creatures which harm no one, which follow you, serve you and are devoured by you as a reward of their service.”

Vegan diet and its heroes in modern history

Shelley, Percy Bysshe (1792 – 1822, British author)

His work “A Vindication of Natural Diet” published in 1813, is a prominent defense of vegetarianism for ethical, health, and environmental reasons. He stated: “It is only by softening and disguising dead flesh by culinary preparation that it is rendered susceptible of mastication or digestion, and that the sight of its bloody juices and red horror does not excite intolerable loathing and disgust.”

Gandhi, Mohandas (1869 – 1948, Indian Hindu nationalist leader)

Gandhi became a dedicated vegetarian by choice in his youth and wrote five volumes about it, playing a significant role in the history of the vegan diet. Above all, he argued that humans are not carnivores and meat is not a suitable product for our physiological condition.

 In his,” The Moral Basis of Vegetarianism”, he asserted: “we can judge the greatness of a nation and its moral progress by the way its animals are treated”.

Moreover, he was a very strong opponent of vivisection, calling it “the blackest of all the black crimes that man is at present committing against God and His fair creation”.

Darwin, Charles (1809 – 1882, biologist, known primarily for his theory of evolution)

Darwin’s research presented in 1858, “On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life”, he concluded: “there is no fundamental difference between man and the higher animals in their mental faculties…Therefore, the lower animals like men manifestly feel pleasure and pain, happiness and misery.

“The love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man”.

Einstein, Albert (1879 – 1955, scientist, philosopher)

 “Although I have been prevented by outward circumstances from observing a strictly vegetarian diet, I have long been an adherent to the cause in principle. Besides agreeing with the aims of vegetarianism for aesthetic and moral reasons, it is my view that a vegetarian manner of living by its purely physical effect on the human temperament would most beneficially influence the lot of mankind.”

 Nikola Tesla (1857-1943, a Serbian-American inventor, electrical and mechanical engineer and futurist)

“With the passing decades, Tesla shifted away from a meat diet. He substituted fish, always boiled, and eliminated the meat entirely. Later on, he entirely eliminated the fish and lived on a vegetarian diet. Milk was his main standby, and toward the end of his life it was the principal item of diet, served warm”. (The Life of Nikola Tesla by John J. O’Neill (1944)

 “It is certainly preferable to raise vegetables, and I think that vegetarianism is a commendable departure from the established barbarous habit. It is not a theory but a well demonstrated fact that humans can subsist on plant food and perform their work even to advantage”.

Shaw, George Bernard (1865 – 1950; British dramatist and critic)

George Bernard Shaw was one of the most famous vegetarians in history. For most of his life he was a vegetarian for nutritional and aesthetic reasons. He also argued that there is a connection between violence towards animals and people going to war.  for instance, one of his most famous quotes: “Animals are my friends and I don’t eat my friends.”

Mark Twain (1835-1910, American writer, humorist, entrepreneur, publisher, and lecturer)

“I believe I am not interested to know whether Vivisection produces results that are profitable to humans or doesn’t. To know that the results are profitable to the race would not remove my hostility to it. The pain which it inflicts upon the dissenting animals is the basis of my enmity towards it, and it is to me sufficient justification of the enmity without looking further.”

Tolstoy, Leo (1828 – 1910, Russian social critic and novelist)

He became a vegetarian after a visit at a slaughterhouse. The transition to the plant-based diet was gradual.

“Flesh eating is simply immoral, as it involves the performance of an act which is contrary to moral feeling: By killing, man suppresses in himself, unnecessarily, the highest spiritual capacity, that of sympathy and pity towards living creatures like himself and by violating his own feelings becomes cruel.”

Likewise, he also mentioned: “As long as there are slaughterhouses, there will be battlefields.”

“What I think about vivisection is that if people admit that they have the right to take or endanger the life of living beings for the benefit of many, there will be no limit to their cruelty.”

Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1937)

“During the recent illness, of Mr. Thos. Alva Edison, the famous inventor ceased using meat and went for a thorough course of vegetarianism. Consequently, Mr. Edison was so pleased with the change of diet that, now he has regained his normal health, he continues to renounce meat in all its forms.” (From the Vegetarian Messenger (the magazine of the Vegetarian Society of Great Britain), June 1908)

Kafka, Franz (1883 – 1924, Czech-born, German writer)

Kafka followed vegetarianism for health and ethical reasons, interested in the benefits of the raw-food diet and involved in anti-vivisection activities. Moreover, while viewing a fish in an aquarium, he said: “Now I can look at you in peace, I don’t eat you anymore”.

Singer, Isaac Bashevis (1904 – 1991, Yiddish author, Nobel prize winner)

He was a vegetarian for his last 35 years, on ethical grounds. “I am a vegetarian for health reasons – the health of the chicken.” This was his famous saying!

“How can we speak of right and justice if we take an innocent creature and shed its blood”.

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