The Land of Penn and Plenty: Bringing History to the Table

Search using this query type:



Advanced Search (Items only)

Army Diet Table

by Willis L. Shirk, Jr.

This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XXXVIII, Number 1 - Winter 2012

A "Diet Table for General Hospitals, United States Army," is contained in Record Group 19, Records of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, at the Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg. Issued by Surgeon General of the United States William Alexander Hammond (1828-1900) on October 28,1862, it recommended the types and quantities of foods and beverages to be consumed by patients in military facilities.

Born in Annapolis, Maryland, Hammond and his family moved to Harrisburg when he was five years old. He earned his medical degree from the University of the City of New York. Appointed an assistant surgeon in the U.S. Army in 1849, Hammond first served at Fort Riley on the Kansas River. President Lincoln appointed him to the post of Surgeon General during the American Civil War, on April 25, 1862.

The table prescribed menus for a Full Diet, Half Diet, Chicken Diet, Low Diet, Milk Diet, and Beef-Tea Diet, in addition to listing extra foods and beverages, including oysters, mutton chop, oatmeal gruel, barley-water, blancmange (a chilled dessert made of cream, sugar, gelatin or cornstarch, and almonds), whisky, ale, cider, and milk punch (usually flavored with brandy in the North and bourbon in the South). The table provided specific examples of both Full and Half Diets recommended for each of the seven days of the week at breakfast, dinner, and tea.

During the early nineteenth century, persistent crop failures in Great Britain prompted Edward Smith (1819-1874), a physician and medical writer, to conduct experiments by which he first determined the minimum daily nutritional requirements for humans. By the 1860s, the results led to a growing consensus in England and America that a normal adult should cat approximately three thousand calories and eighty grams of protein daily. The table illustrates diet recommendations based on the experimental findings. The portions are staggering by today's standards. For a Full Diet, the chart proposed sixteen ounces of meat, eighteen ounces of bread, and eight ounces each of potatoes and other vegetables each day. Even the Low Diet called for eight ounces of meat and fourteen ounces of bread daily.

A note at the bottom of this chart reads: "Medical Officers who receive this Diet Table are directed to adopt it immediately in the hospitals under their charge, and to comply strictly and carefully with its provisions for ten days, keeping during that period an accurate account of expenditures from the Hospital Fund. At the end of that time they will report the results of this experimental trial, its effects upon the sick and upon the Hospital Fund, and will make such suggestions as they deem appropriate, the object being to test the practical operation of the Diet Table, before adopting it as the standard for the General Hospitals."


Willis L. Shirk Jr. is an archivist with the Pennsylvania State Archives.

Our Documentary Heritage showcases holdings drawn from the vast collections of the Pennsylvania State Archives.


For Further Reading

pennsylvania-heritage-winter-2012_compac Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Winter 2012

Articles 3