[updated August 2012] The word 'vegan' was invented in November 1944 by Donald Watson in England. But the origins are not how many vegans today might imagine.
We know there were definitely groups of people in both Britain and America, as far back as 1806, which avoided the use of any animal products for food, clothing or labor. There may have been some earlier but precise details are rarely recorded as they had no specific word to describe themselves.
In the mid-20th century there were a number of members of the Vegetarian Society in the UK who wanted to form a distinct section, within the Society, of 'non-dairy vegetarians'. This was rejected by the Society as being too divisive, but in the end it was even more divisive as those promoting the idea were left with little choice but to form a separate society. Watson simply took the beginning and end of 'vegetarian' - and the world's first Vegan Society was born, initially with just 25 members.
Their journal was called 'The Vegan News (Quarterly Magazine of the Non-Dairy Vegetarians)' - and the very first edition, November 1944, is on the IVU website at:
In it, Watson proposes the word 'Vegan' and says "Should we adopt this, our diet will soon become known as a VEGAN diet."
The idea spread further and sooner than they might have thought - by 1948 we have a record that Dr. Catherine Nimmo and Rubin Abramowitz formed a Vegan Society in California which ran until 1960. During the 1950s there were also vegan societies in Germany and India, but they seem to have been short-lived.
Meanwhile the British group joined IVU (International Vegetarian Union, of which I'm now the manager), and Donald Watson spoke on 'Veganism' at the 1947 IVU World Vegetarian Congress. The new vegans made it clear that they saw themselves very much as a part of the broader vegetarian movement.
photo right: Donald Watson, front row middle, at the 1947 IVU Congress.
Over those first few years there was much discussion about the definition of the new word. Initially it was just about diet, but new rules were adopted by the Vegan Society in 1951. This went much further than mere 'non-dairy' :
"The object of the Society shall be to end the exploitation of animals by man;" and "The word veganism shall mean the doctrine that man should live without exploiting animals."
They continued: "The Society pledges itself in pursuance of its object to seek to end the use of animals by man for food, commodities, work, hunting, vivisection and all other uses involving exploitation of animal life by man."
But. . . it is not clear whether the group in California agreed to all this, or were even initially aware of it. It is possibly a result of this that there has always been a significant group 'dietary vegans' in the USA, whilst others regard themselves as 'ethical vegans'. The British Vegan Society, and many Americans, do not accept the distinction, insisting that ethics are an integral part of the definition. But it is always difficult to argue against common usage of any words.
The next major development was the founding of the American Vegan Society in 1960, and that is still very active today at: www.americanvegan.org (hosted by VegSource.com). From the outset this group followed the same definition as the British Vegan Society, and has also been a member of IVU since it started.
1981 saw the first International Vegan Festival, held in Denmark. These have continued roughly every two years in many European countries as well as California, Australia, India and Brazil. For full details see: www.ivu.org/veganfest/history
The use of the word Vegan has expanded dramatically in the last 30 years, and there are now Vegan Societies in most parts of the world. To find these and other Vegan resources just use the database at www.ivu.org
Donald Watson, the man who invented the word, was vegetarian from 1924, then 'non-dairy' from 1940 (inventing 'vegan' in November 1944). He died in 2005 at the grand age of 95. The photo shows him in later life reading his first issue of 'Vegan News' (Picture by Joe Connolly - Veg News)
Since 1994 (50th aniversary), World Vegan Day has been celebrated on November 1 each year in recognition of his invention.
More details of the origins of The Vegan Society (the British group has never added 'UK' to its name) and its membership of IVU can be found at:
IVU now has 27 full voting member organizations with the word 'vegan' in their title, and many more that are vegan in all but name - and another 112 called vegan in our public database.
The IVU members are below, all have websites, most have Facebook pages or groups, copy and paste into Google or FB to find them:
AUSTRIA - Vegane Gesellschaft Österreich
CHINA - Hong Kong Vegan Society
ETHIOPIA - Ethiopian Vegan Association
FINLAND - Vegaaniliitto ry (Finnish Vegan Society)
FRANCE - Société végane
INDIA - Indian Vegan Society
INDONESIA - Vegan Society of Indonesia
ITALY - BioVeganFest
KOREA - Korea Vegan Society & Diet and Climate Institute
NETHERLANDS - Nederlandse Vereniging voor Veganisme
NORWAY - Norwegian Vegan Society
SOUTH AFRICA - South African Vegan Society
SPAIN - Asociación Vegana Española
SWEDEN - Veganföreningen i Sverige
TOGO (West Africa) - Vegan Students Association of Togo
URUGUAY - Unión Vegetariana y Vegana del Uruguay
The Vegan Society
Lewes & Hastings Vegetarian and Vegan Group
North Riding Vegetarians & VeganS
North Somerset Vegetarian and Vegan Information centre
Oxveg (Oxfordshire Vegetarians and Vegans)
The Vegan Chef Network
Vegetarian and Vegan Foundation
American Vegan Society
Sacramento Vegan Society
(most US groups called 'vegetarian' are in fact vegan, and many now avoid either word in their title)
For vegan history, see my free e-book: ‘World Veganism – past, present and future.” You can download it for free, or replace your existing copy at: www.ivu.org/history/Vegan_History.pdf (6mb)
IVU on Facebook: www.facebook.com/InternationalVegUnion