I’ve recently discovered a slice of Maine’s lost vegetarian past.

Less than two decades after Maine became a state in 1820, records show that at least a few Maine residents were already advocating for a meat-free diet.

We find hints of this bygone vegetarian scene in the early 19th-century diaries of Dr. Horace A. Barrows, who practiced in western Maine; in a letter by Barrows included in an 1838 book published by the famous Dr. William Alcott of Connecticut; and in an 1834 letter written by the Rev. Henry Aiken Worcester of Portland praising the vegetarian leanings of most doctors in the city.

Inside the Maine Historical Society’s Brown Library in downtown Portland the air is heavy with echoes of the past. Out of sight in the archive live 12 diaries written by Barrows between 1825 and 1852. What led me to them was a letter written by Barrows on April 28, 1835, and published in Dr. Alcott’s 1838 “Vegetable Diet: As Sanctioned by Medical Men, and by Experience in All Ages.”

The book is considered a seminal work in the cannon of American vegetarian literature.

The heart of “Vegetable Diet” is a series of letters written by American doctors. They were written in response to an 1835 query placed in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal and other medical journals of the day asking 11 questions about experiences “excluding animal food” from the diet.

The response from Dr. H. A. Barrows of Phillips, Maine, reads:

“Dear Sir, – I have a brother-in-law, who owes his life to abstinence from animal food, and strict adherence to the simplest vegetable diet. My own existence is prolonged, only (according to human probabilities) by entire abstinence from flesh-meat of every description, and feeding principally upon the farinacea [an archaic term for grains and vegetables].

“Numberless other instances have come under my observation within the last three years, in which a strict adherence to a simple vegetable diet has done for the wretched invalids what the best medical treatment had utterly failed to do.”

Barrows goes on to report his brother-in-law has eaten vegetarian for three years and that he himself has abstained from meat for “eighteen months partially, and three months wholly.”

The Maine Historical Society houses these hand-sewn diaries, which are among 12 written by Dr. Horace A. Barrows between 1825 and 1852. Barrows practiced in western Maine and advocated for vegetarian diets. Photo by Avery Yale Kamila

The diaries are striking, with hand-sewn, floral covers, old-fashioned handwriting and even a few sketches and watercolors. They have never been transcribed, but thanks to the help of Brown Library staff, I was able to decipher passages related to vegetarian practices of the day.

In “Vegetarian America,” authors Karen Iacobbo and Michael Iacobbo note that in 1832 “a cholera epidemic swept across the nation like a tidal wave.” William Jordan’s “Index to Portland Newspapers 1785-1835” includes many reports about the epidemic during the years 1831 and 1832, when water for Portland residents came from private wells and cisterns. The city’s public water system wouldn’t be built until 1869, following the Great Fire.

The Iacobbos write that the response to the cholera epidemic from most U.S. physicians was to recommend laudanum, hot mustard poultices and meat. While laudanum (morphine tincture) and mustard poultices were much-prescribed in Maine and in Portland at the time, a letter from this era reports sympathy for the vegetable diet expressed by Portland’s medical community.

During this time, another prominent American voice advocating in favor of a vegetable diet was skilled orator the Rev. Sylvester Graham, whose dietary advice had been credited with helping cholera patients in New York. Graham (the Graham cracker is named for him, although he’d likely disapprove of today’s version) advised people to eat fruits, vegetables and whole grain bread and to avoid meat, alcohol and tobacco.

In June 1834, Graham gave a series of 16 lectures called the “Science of Human Life” in Portland. After the first four, the Portland newspaper the Eastern Argus advised its readers to attend the remaining lectures since “the lecturer is able to command the attention of a general audience, without any symptoms of weariness for more than two hours.”

After attending the lectures, the Rev. Henry Aiken Worcester, a Yale University alumni and a Swedenborgian minister in Portland, wrote a letter to his siblings in Hardwick, Vermont, lauding Graham’s dietary advice. In this letter, now in the collection of the Ernest Bell Library housed with The Humanitarian League in Hong Kong, Worcester recommends Graham’s diet for his siblings’ “nervous irritability” and “sick headache.”

He urges them to eat no meat or dairy products from cows and instead to consume “good wheaten bread,” vegetables, beans and fruit.

Unlike the assessment in “Vegetarian America” that most doctors of the day ignored Graham’s dietary advice,  Worcester writes: “But I tell you that the physicians, all but one quack, of Portland, a very scientific class of men, have attended the course, and I believe all, to a man, acknowledge the correctness of Graham’s principles. The change that it is making in this city you can hardly conceive of, for a very large portion of the inhabitants have adopted his mode of diet and manner of living.”

Historian William David Barry with the Maine Historical Society told me that Worcester’s characterization of Portland’s physicians as “a very scientific class of men” and his report that “a very large portion of the inhabitants” followed Graham’s teachings fits with the intellectually open culture of Maine in the 19th century.

“Places like Portland and Bangor and even some of the smaller towns were very lively,” Barry said. “People were well-educated and had an interest in the future.”

Barry said letter writing and attending lectures were popular pastimes of the era, and there was a lot of cross pollination of ideas and fermentation among social change movements.

“In the 1830s, ‘40s and ‘50s, it was a very yeast-y, a very interesting time,” Barry said, pointing out that Portland’s temperance movement, which ultimately led to national Prohibition, was already bubbling. Graham also cautioned audiences to avoid alcohol.

In his 2013 book “The Vegetarian Crusade: The Rise of an American Reform Movement, 1817-1921,” historian Adam D. Shprintzer writes that in the 1830s and 1840s “vegetarianism was visualized as a catalyst for total social reform, including the emancipation of slaves, the extension of suffrage to women, and the end of oppressive economics.”

In his diaries, Barrows writes of prescribing “Graham Bread & cold water.” On July 27, 1838, when he was living in Phillips, Barrows wrote: “Finished reading ‘Graham’s Treatise on Bread & Bread Making’ & last but by no means least (inasmuch as it occupied the most of the day) washing & drying 1 1/2 Bushels of wheat agreeable to Graham’s directions – an experiment we have never tried before.”

Graham’s “Treatise” had been published the previous year, and like Dr. Alcott’s “Vegetable Diet,” both can be found in print today.

Barrows was also a maker of plant-based medicines. A short biography of Barrows written by his grand nephew George Barrows Turner was given to the Maine Historical Society in 1964, along with the diaries and other family papers. According to Turner, Barrows “was one of the pioneers in the making of proprietary medicines and his ‘Best Family Physic,’ ‘Syrian Balm of Life,’ a salve he called ‘Political Ointment’ etc, were widely known over the state of Maine.”

Barrows often chronicled his own poor health in his diary; in an entry dated Nov. 18, 1834 he wrote: “One year ago to night [sic] I suffered an attack of Epilepsy & several subsequent attacks during the week following, from which my friends & neighbors thought I should not recover.”

In fact, Barrows lived until June 7, 1852, dying at age 42 in Harrison and leaving behind his wife and two adopted children. Worcester also had a short life, dying in 1841 at age 38, when his wife, Olive Gay, was pregnant with their second child. Graham passed away in 1851 at age 57; Dr. Alcott died in 1859 at age 60.

But the vegetarian ideas espoused by Graham and Alcott and echoed by Maine residents Barrows and Worcester didn’t die with them. Instead, Maine would see a Portland girl born in 1827 launch the Seventh-day Adventist religion, today a sizable Christian denomination known for its promotion of vegan food.

A century later, homesteaders and vocal vegetarians Helen and Scott Nearing would put Maine on the back-to-the-land map and infuse the local health food scene with a plant-based vibe still felt today.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at

[email protected]

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila


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