Science & Technology

The Weird Diets of 4 Historic Scientists

If someone is successful enough, people won't stop at just emulating their ideas. Whether you're talking about Elon Musk or Benjamin Franklin, a curious public is dying to know their work habits, sleep habits, favorite books, and even what they eat, all in the hope of getting a little bit of that success for themselves. At the very least, peeking in on the habits of luminaries can give us a unique perspective on them as people. In that spirit, here are the diets of four of history's greatest scientists — meat-shunning, bean-fearing, ginger-tinged and all.


It's almost a shame to start with the oldest figure on this list, seeing as his diet may have been the most bizarre. Pythagoras was a Greek philosopher and mathematician who lived during the sixth century B.C.E. and was one of the first to apply numbers to nature. He also developed the modern musical scale. He was a popular figure during his life, to put it lightly: Some said he was the second coming of Apollo, others said he could cure disease through the power of his music.

When he set up a school in Sicily, he immediately attracted 500 followers who enthusiastically followed his principles. Chief among them was a doctrine known as metempsychosis, which says that when you die, your soul could pass into the body of another animal species. If that could happen, then to avoid consuming human souls, you'd better avoid eating animals. As a result, Pythagoras and his followers were vegetarians. That made logical sense, but this made very little: Pythagoras also forbade eating beans, or even harming them in any way. He was so against beans in general that legend says that he was killed while fleeing his enemies because he refused to cross a bean field. Essays upon essays have been written about why Pythagoras shunned beans, but the answer is still a mystery. (Is it because they're the musical fruit? The world may never know.)

Charles Darwin

The English naturalist and biologist best known for his theory of evolution through natural selection was an expert in the majestic diversity of the animal kingdom — and a gourmet of it, too. When he was a student at Cambridge, he was a member of the Glutton Club, a group of students that met specifically to eat "strange flesh" — but since they were college students, that just ended up being hawk, bittern, and an old brown owl. But once Darwin set sail on the HMS Beagle, the world was his menu: He ate armadillos, which he said "taste & look like duck," and a large brown rodent — either a guinea pig or an agouti — which he recalled was "the best meat I ever tasted," according to The Oxford Companion to Food.

In his later years, however, Charles Darwin commonly suffered from dizziness, muscle spasms, vomiting, headaches, anxiety, and flatulence, and at one point had to stop working completely for several months because of his poor health. At this point, his doctor put him on a diet that he said had him "half starved to death" but made him feel much better. In addition to avoiding starch to keep stomach acid to a minimum, he also would take "10 drops of muriatic acid" (aka hydrochloric acid) "twice a day (with cayenne & ginger)..." It seemed to do the trick. "It suits me excellently," he wrote. A low-carb diet with a cayenne-ginger cleanse? Darwin might as well be in Hollywood.

Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla might be the internet's favorite underdog scientist. Even though he made important contributions to such groundbreaking technology as radio, radar, and Wi-Fi, and arguably won the so-called "current wars" that pitted his alternating current (AC) electricity technology against Thomas Edison's direct current (DC), Edison is the one who headlines the history books. He was even more charming than Edison, known for an impeccable sense of style, and counted Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling among his high-status friends (Edison was an introvert with few friends). But Tesla's mental health suffered in his later years and he became somewhat obsessive, both with his work and with hygiene. This may have extended to his diet, if a 1933 interview in the Kansas City Journal-Post is any indication:

"My regime for the good life and my diet? Well, for one thing, I drink plenty of milk and water ... I eat but two meals a day, and I avoid all acid-producing foods. Almost everyone eats too many peas and beans and other foods containing uric acid and other poisons. I partake liberally of fresh vegetables, fish and meat sparingly, and rarely. Fish is reputed as fine brain food, but has a very strong acid reaction, as it contains a great deal of phosphorus. Acidity is by far the worst enemy to fight off in old age."

For exercise, he said, he walked 8 to 10 miles a day and "also exercise in my bath daily." Sleep was rare: "Sometimes I doze for an hour or so. Occasionally, however, once in a few months, I may sleep for four or five hours. Then I awaken virtually charged with energy, like a battery." These sleep habits were similar to those of another great inventor: Leonardo da Vinci.

Albert Einstein

Seeing as Einstein's name is synonymous with "genius," it makes some sense that the internet abounds with myths about his life that help people claim him as their own: he was a bad student (false), he was an atheist, he was a Christian (neither are technically correct), and he was a vegetarian. That last one is true if you only count the last few years of his life. Einstein ate meat well into adulthood — the physicist Philipp Frank once wrote about a time in 1921 that Einstein chastised his wife for cooking liver incorrectly, and he once absentmindedly gobbled down expensive caviar because he was too busy analyzing Galileo's theories to notice what it was. Still, he had some objections to eating meat. "I have always eaten animal flesh with a somewhat guilty conscience," he wrote in a 1953 letter.

But he suffered from frequent digestive problems, which his doctor treated by recommending a balanced diet of meat and simple carbohydrates. As he got sicker into his seventies, however, the doctor cut meat from his diet entirely. A year before he died, he wrote to his collaborator Hans Muehsam, "So I am living without fats, without meat, without fish, but am feeling quite well this way. It always seems to me that man was not born to be a carnivore." It's not clear whether the diet extended his life, but it's comforting to know it helped him feel better in his final years.

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For more about the lifestyles of the bright and talented, check out "Daily Rituals: How Artists Work" by Mason Currey. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer September 12, 2018

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