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Biographies of Famous Vegetarians

Throughout history, many of the world`s greatest philosophers, writers, scientists, artists, spiritual leaders, and teachers have been adherents and/or enthusiastic supporters of vegetarianism. Following are some very brief biographies of some of the most famous. This is not meant to be a complete listing, nor are the biographies meant to discuss all aspects of each person`s life. This section aims to provide an idea of some of the vegetarian activities and teachings of several extraordinary people who have promoted vegetarianism.

Agnon, Shmuel Yosef (1888 - 1970, Hebrew author)

Agnon is a central figure in modern Hebrew fiction. He wrote many novels and short stories about major contemporary spiritual concerns. He won the Israel Prize for Literature in 1954 and 1958 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966, the first time that honor was given to a Hebrew writer.

Agnon was a devout Jew who spent much of his life in Israel. He was extremely dedicated to vegetarianism and wove vegetarian themes into many of his stories. His great sensitivity to all creatures is indicated in the following excerpt from his speech upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature:

Lest I slight any creature, I must also mention the domestic animals, the beasts, and the birds from whom I have learned. Job said long ago (35:11) "Who teacheth us more than than the beasts of the earth, and maketh us wiser than the fouls of heaven?"

Buddha (founder of Buddhism)

Although initially a member of a warrior caste, Gautama Buddha became disgusted with the excesses of the Brahman priests, and set out at the age of 29 to find his personal path to salvation. He was overwhelmed by the suffering that he saw around him, and concluded that kindness toward all creatures was an important principle. He stated, "Do not butcher the ox that plows in the field" and "Meat eating I have not permitted to anyone." (Lankavatara ) However, Buddhism has complex teachings related to the eating of meat, permitting it for people who had not seen the animal being put to death and if the animal wasn`t specifically slaughtered for their benefit. Hence, Buddha himself did eat some boar`s flesh.

Darwin, Charles (1809 - 1882, biologist)

Charles Darwin is known primarily for his theory of evolution. The background for this theory was obtained when when he was appointed a naturalist and sailed around the globe on the H. M. S. Beagle investigating wildlife in many remote areas. His conclusions, presented in 1858 in "On the Origin of Species of Species by Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life", have been the subject of much discussion and controversy since then. Darwin`s research led him to conclude that the differences in mental faculties between humans and the higher mammals, great as it is, "certainly is one of degree and not of kind". He taught that human senses, intuitions, and emotions may be found, sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals. This, plus his sensitivity and compassion, led him to conclude, "The love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man".

da Vinci, Leonardo (1452 - 1519, Italian scientist, painter, sculptor, engineer, and architect)

Leonardo da Vinci made great innovations in painting, flying machines, military weapons, and engineering. While his great inventions and artistic achievements are well known, few people realize that he was also considered to be the first great vegetarian of modern Western civilization. His vegetarianism was primarily for humanitarian reasons; for example, he would often buy a caged bird just to set it free.

The strength of da Vinci`s feelings about vegetarianism is indicated by this quotation from Merijkowsky`s Romance of Leonardo da Vinci , " Truly man is the king of beasts, for his brutality exceeds theirs. We live by the death of others; we are burial places". 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.

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

Albert Einstein is considered to be one of the outstanding scientists in history. Among his greatest achievements was his formulation of the "theory of relativity". He was also a philosopher who often spoke out for peace and justice.

Einstein felt that if people switched to vegetarianism, it would greatly benefit humanity. He wrote, "the vegetarian manner of living . . . would most beneficially influence the lot of mankind."

He believed that people were separated from other people and from animals because of excessive self concern. For a better world, he felt that, "our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty". He felt that even the striving for such an achievement was in itself part of liberation and a foundation for inner security.

Gandhi, Mohandas (1869 - 1948, Indian Hindu social reformer and nationalist leader)

Mahatma Gandhi was one of the greatest nationalist leaders in the history of India. He used civil disobedience, including such tactics as fasting and passive resistance, to work for freedom for his people. He also worked very hard to bring people of various religions together.

Gandhi saw vegetarianism as a moral cause, even once stating that he would prefer death to consuming some beef-tea or mutton, even under medical advice. He saw the life of a lamb as no less precious than that of a human being. In his," The Moral Basis of Vegetarianism", he asserted, "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated". To Gandhi, vegetarianism was not just a religious principle, but an obsession that he spent much time and effort on. He wrote 5 volumes on the subject.

Though he rebelled against vegetarianism for a short time in his youth, his reading of Henry Salt`s Plea for Vegetarianism , a book that he discovered by accident, made him a dedicated vegetarian by choice. He held that flesh-foods were unsuited to the human species. 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".

Gompertz, Lewis (labor leader)

Lewis Gompertz was the British founder of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1824.

He felt that it was improper education that was responsible for what he regarded as the "crime of cruelty", and he advocated more instruction that would help people distinguish between right and wrong. He was very much against hunting, since it was inhumane to pursue "a poor defenseless creature for mere amusement, till it becomes exhausted by terror and fatigue . . ."

Graham, Sylvester (1794 - 1851)

Sylvester Graham was an American Presbyterian minister (ordained in 1826) who preached on temperance and stressed whole-wheat flour and vegetarian diets. He was known for his graham crackers. His Graham Journal of Health and Longevity preached his principles of good health. He compared people physiologically to orangutans, and concluded that vegetarian food was natural for both primates.

Graham had many devoted followers, known as Grahamites, who slavishly followed his principles, which included temperance, sexual restraint, and baths, in addition to vegetarianism. He was so famous that his lectures on proper living were attended by thousands, and he was able to hold his audiences spellbound. He had many disciples who also worked diligently to further the vegetarian cause. When the British Vegetarian Society was founded in 1847, he helped found a similar group in America.

Kafka, Franz (1883 - 1924, important Austrian - Czech writer)

Kafka was a Czech-born, German novelist whose writing had tremendous influence on western literature and art. His many books include The Castle , The Trial , and The Great Wall of China . His novels have been translated into many languages and have been adapted for movies, plays, and operas. The plot in his books generally center around the hero`s search for identity.

Kafka was attracted to vegetarianism for health and ethical reasons. While viewing a fish in an aquarium, he said, "Now I can look at you in peace; I don`t eat you any more." He had little faith in conventional doctors; he was interested in the benefits of raw-food diets. He was also involved in anti-vivisection activities.

Kellogg, John Harvey, M. D. (1852 - 1943, American surgeon)

Dr. John Harvey Kellogg was a Seventh-day Adventist who worked actively to promote proper health approaches. To further this interest, he founded a sanatorium in Battle Creek, Michigan. Thousands of patients came seeking cures. To further nutritious eating, he invented flaked cereals and peanut butter. His wife Ellen wrote the first modern vegetarian cookbook, Science in the Kitchen .

Kellogg wrote prolifically about his then radical nutritional and health ideas. For over 60 years, he edited Good Health Magazine , which promoted vegetarianism in virtually every issue. His dietetic ideas were also published in "The Miracle of Life" in 1904.

Nearing, Scott (1883 - 1983)

Scott Nearing was a back-to-the land pioneer. He wrote " Living the Good Life", with his wife, Helen, in 1954. In this book, they indicated that they went to live off the land, because they "were looking for a kindly, decent, clean, and simple way of life". They felt that the many pressures of modern society and the greed and materialism that were stressed made it imperative to move away from civilization and get close to nature, to live simply, and to grow their own food.

The Nearings became vegetarians because they regarded it as the best way to "maintain a healthy body as an operating base for a sound mind and purposeful harmless life", and because of their philosophy of doing the "greatest good to the greatest number of people".

Peretz, Isaac Lieb (1852 - 1915, Yiddish author)

Peretz was a prolific and versatile writer of Hebrew and Yiddish stories and poems. He was one of the founders of modern Yiddish literature as well as an important figure in Hebrew literature. His compassion, sensitivity, and rich imagination in championing the cause of the oppressed and common people inspired many other authors. He wrote much about the lives of the chassidim, and the Jewish socialist movement was greatly influenced by his ideas.

Plutarch (46 - 119 A.D., Greek historian and biographer)

Plutarch was most famous for his "Lives", biographies of famous contemporaries. Another important work was his " Moralia", a collection of 60 of his miscellaneous writings.

Plutarch was a strong advocate of vegetarianism. He responded to attacks on vegetarianism in his "On the Eating of Animal Flesh". He felt that people should be ashamed to "mingle murder and blood with (nature`s) beneficent fruits. 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." He felt that we should be merciful to other creatures, "were it only to learn benevolence to humankind"

Porphyry (234 - 305 A.D., Greek author and philosopher)

Porphyry was a very avid advocate of vegetarianism. His literary output was enormous. He wrote "On Abstinence From Animal Food", an early plea for vegetarianism.

He stated that it was iniquitous to eat animals, not for basic needs such as nourishment , but only for pleasure and gluttony. He regarded animals as his brothers and asserted, "A man who eats a harmless diet will be less inclined to slaughter another man`s flesh since the idea would be unthinkable".

Pythagoras (580 - 500 B.C., Greek philosopher and mathematician)

Pythagoras was an influential Greek who established schools where philosophy, political science, and mathematics were discussed. Today, he is best known for his Pythagorean theorem, which relates the lengths of the sides of right triangles.

Many people consider Pythagoras as "the father of vegetarianism". Vegetarians were initially known as Pythagoreans, until the middle of the 19th century. We know about Pythagoras` vegetarian views primarily through "The Metamorphoses", the epic poem by the Roman writer, Ovid . In that work, Pythagoras states, "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 felt 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."

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques (1712 -1778, French philosopher)

Rousseau is considered by many people to be the most striking figure in French philosophy and literature. He had great enthusiasm for individual liberty and emotional participation in life. He exalted freedom over any external authority, natural impulse over discipline, and individual`s feelings over society`s conventions. His attitudes were a regenerating force and influenced many others throughout Europe.

While not a vegetarian, Rousseau`s writings on the subject affected future dietary movements, including Fruitlands, a 19th century vegetarian commune. He considered vegetarianism to be the ideal diet for people; in his textbook for the ideal education of a child, "Emile", he advocated a simple vegetarian diet for children. He stated that children have an inborn preference for vegetarian, rather than flesh, foods, and felt that this was a proof that meat was not a natural diet for people. In "Emile", he also indicated that "great eaters of flesh are, in general, more cruel and ferocious than other men"

Salt, Henry S. (1827 - 1939, English reformer and author)

Henry Salt was educated at Cambridge and later was active in social reform and literary work. Among his many writings were biographies of Henry David Thoreau, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Richard Jefferies.

Salt had a great influence on late 19th century British antivivisectionists. He believed that the emancipation of people from cruelty and injustice would have to be associated with the emancipation of animals. He was critical of religion, which he felt had never befriended the cause of humaneness. He felt that condoning cruelty to animals perpetuates the spirit that condones cruelty to people. His views on vegetarianism were eloquently expressed in his "The Logic of Vegetarianism".

Schweitzer, Albert (1875 - 1965, theologian, renowned medical missionary in Africa, winner of Nobel Peace Prize, 1952)

Although of German heritage, Schweitzer, perhaps more than any other contemporary figure, is considered to belong to all nations. His name is virtually synonymous with the phrase "reverence for life". He was a theologian and philosopher, an accomplished organist, a prolific author, a missionary doctor in Africa, and the winner of the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize.

Although not a vegetarian for most of his life, he believed that vegetarianism was the diet most consistent with reverence for life. He regretted that he could not fulfill the vegetarian ideal as closely as he would have liked. The importance that he placed on compassion to animals is indicated in his statement, "Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace."

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

Among the most famous of vegetarians, Shaw was a vegetarian for most of his life. He was a prolific writer and authored many plays.

Shaw considered himself a "cannibal", before he discovered the vegetarian writings of the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley. At the first meeting of the Shelly Society at University College, Oxford, Shaw claimed himself to be, like Shelly, a socialist, atheist, and vegetarian. When asked why he was a vegetarian, he once replied, "Why should you call me to account for eating decently? If I fattened on the scorched corpses of innocent beings you might ask me why I did that." While primarily a vegetarian for aesthetic and nutritional reasons, he also condemned animal slaughter, and he saw connections between violence done to animals and people going to war against other human beings.

Shaw was noted for his witty and often cutting statements. Among his comments on vegetarianism is, "Animals are my friends and I don`t eat my friends."

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

Although his life was cut tragically short due to an accident at sea, Percy Bysshe Shelley was one of England`s most prolific writers. He was especially well known for his poems. He was also politically active, working to help the poor in his district.

He wrote "A Vindication of Natural Diet" in 1813, a defense of vegetarianism on ethical, health, and environmental grounds. In it 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."

Shelton, Herbert (1895 - 1985, author and natural hygiene advocate)

Herbert Shelton was a founder of the natural hygiene movement. He was one of its great champions and most prolific writers. He authored many books, including "Superior Nutrition", "Health for All", "The Science and Fine Art of Fasting", and "Human Life: Its Philosophy and Laws".

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

I. B. Singer was an outstanding writer of Yiddish stories. His best-selling novels include "The Family Moscat", "Satan in Goray", "The Magician of Lublin", "Gimpel the Fool", "The Spinoza of Market Street", and "The Slave". He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978.

He was a staunch vegetarian for his last 35 years, primarily because of compassion for animals. He was fond of saying that he was a vegetarian for health reasons - the health of the chicken. He frequently included vegetarian themes in his stories. In his short story, "The Slaughterer", he described the anguish that an appointed slaughterer had trying to reconcile his compassion for animals with his job of slaughtering animals. He felt that the eating of meat was a denial of all ideals and all religions: "How can we speak of right and justice if we take an innocent creature and shed its blood".

Thoreau, Henry David (1817 - 1862; American writer and naturalist)

Thoreau was primarily known for his advocacy of civil disobedience and his most famous book, Walden , or Life in the Woods , where he advocated that people abandon the complexities of civilization. He urged people to "Simplify, simplify" and "March to the tune of a different drummer". Following his own advice, Thoreau "to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically", as he said. built a log cabin on Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts, and lived there alone for two years.

While he strongly advocated vegetarianism, he practiced it for only a few years. In Walden , he wrote, "I have no doubt that it is part of the destiny of the human race in its gradual development to leave off the eating of animals as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other when they came in contact with the more civilized."

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

Leo Tolstoy was one of Russia`s most famous writers and social commentators. Among his famous books is "War and Peace".

While a hedonist for most of his life, a visit to a slaughterhouse which he vividly wrote about moved him toward vegetarianism. His conversion was gradual and he vacillated back and forth for several years. He expressed his moral reasons for vegetarianism in the preface to a book called "The Ethics of Diet". In his essay, "The First Step", he indicated that meat-centered diets were immoral, not only because of the harm done to animals, but "that man suppresses in himself, unnecessarily, the highest spiritual capacity - that of sympathy and pity toward living creatures like himself - and by violating his own feelings becomes cruel." He also stated that, since people can be healthy without eating meat, doing so is immoral.

White, Ellen G. (1827 - 1915, vegetarian health reformer)

Ellen White was one of the founders of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. She was a vegetarian health reformer, and vegetarianism and other health teachings of the Adventists are due to her efforts. She believed that the human body represented God`s temple and therefore it should not be abused. She also denounced tobacco and alcohol.

About fifty percent of Adventists today are lacto-ovo vegetarians. There are about 2 million Adventists throughout the world, with about a quarter of them living in the United States. The Seventh-Day Adventists are strong promoters of good health. They have their own publishing company and produce many books and other publications. They also have many hospitals, natural food stores, and vegetarian restaurants. In addition, they have an institution of higher education, Loma Linda University.

Several studies have found that Adventists are significantly healthier than the general population. Vegetarians owe much to Seventh-Day Adventists, since much of what is now known about health effects of vegetarianism comes from their studies.



1. Much of the information in these brief biographies is based on material in the Encyclopedia Americana and historical material in "The Vegetable Passion", by Janet Barkas, "The Vegetarian Handbook", by Gary Null, "Vegetarianism - A Way of Life', by Dudley Giehl, "Food for a Future", by Jon Wynne-Tyson, and "Judaism and Vegetarianism", by Richard H. Schwartz. Many of the quotations and quotation-excerpts are from "The Extended Circle - A Dictionary of Humane Thought", edited by Jon Wynne Tyson.

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