Interview with IVU Historian

IVU Online News | International Vegetarian Union | 04/21/11

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Supreme Master TV recently broadcast a three part mini-series on the "International Vegetarian Union and the Venerable History of Vegetarianism", based on interviews with John Davis, IVU Manager and Historian, during the 1st Mid-East Veg Congress in Dubai, December 2010. The recordings, about 16 mins each, are being made available as part of 'Our Noble Lineage' at: (the photo left was another interview in Jakarta, Indonesia)

Below is an interview with John Davis.

Has history always been an interest of yours?

It has always been a fascination. I've compiled a history of the ancient English village where my wife Hazel and I live, which I'm now taking on tour to local history groups. We have also traced our family histories back hundreds of years.

When did you first start researching vegetarian history? What was the first topic/era that you looked at?

There is one article on the IVU website that I compiled in 1992, which was probably where it began - I was reading a very large book on the social history of England from 1066 to 1945, and there was quite a lot about food in it, all referring to much earlier books. As the originals were out of copyright I put together a lot the interesting items. 'Food in England Since 1066 -- A Vegetarian Evolution?' at:

When I started the IVU website in 1995, I put in a section on 'History' and just started adding whatever came along that was non-copyright. We now have more than 10,000 files of historical info on there.

In 2002 we agreed to hold the IVU Centenary Congress in Dresden, in 2008; so during those six years I did a lot of research into the history of IVU itself, mainly from the Vegetarian Society UK library which has all the journals back to 1847.

How has the internet changed the nature of historical research?

Dramatically. The biggest difference for veg*n history is having old books available - Google has about 10 million non-copyright books scanned, so now we can read them without needing direct access to the biggest libraries. 

Crucially we can also search those 10 million books in a matter of seconds - so,  for example, finding all uses of the word 'vegetarian' in old books would have been almost impossible in the past, now we've done it.

How do you try for accuracy in your work?

Mostly by encouraging others to double check it - known as 'peer reviewing' in research terms. We have a small ivu-history email group with some great people who soon pick up anything I get wrong, and they add more of their own research which the rest of us check too.

The other priority is to try to get back to original sources. In recent years there have been many books on various aspects of veg history, but many of them contain mistakes, some of them just referring to each other and perpetuating the errors.

Now so much more is online it does get much easier to find the original texts and check for ourselves exactly what people were writing hundreds of years ago. Putting all our research on the website also means it can be easily updated when new information is found, whereas once a book is printed there is no easy way of correcting it. Anyone with an interest in veg history is welcome to join us at:

What topics have caught your interest of late? And, what have you learned?

Over the last few months the ivu-history group been looking at the history of 'veganism' before the word 'vegan' was invented in 1944. As they had no word to describe themselves, it takes a lot of detailed research to look at everything we can find about what people were eating, and their ethical views. There was no consistent meaning to phrases like 'strict vegetarian', so we have to examine every scrap of evidence available.

I'll be giving a presentation about this at the International Vegan Festival in Spain this June. The results, so far, are at:

What one article, book, etc. from 50 or more years ago would you strongly recommend to today's veg activists, and where can they find that?

The most remarkable of the older books has to be 'The Ethics of Diet' compiled by Howard Williams, MA from 1878 onwards. This is effectively the first ever 'history of vegetarianism', with articles on almost 100 significant people who adopted the meatless diet. Williams not only had no internet - there were not even any previous printed histories to refer to.

The amount of research involved must have been staggering. Gandhi knew Williams and read his book; Tolstoy wrote an essay 'The First Step' as a preface for the Russian edition.

There were some changes in later editions, but we now have almost everything from all the editions online at:

If you had the power to go back and change one historical event, what event would that be and how would you change it?

That would have to be to try to stop the awful confusion that has arisen around the word 'vegetarian'! Now we just have to try to resolve it as best we can. For what it originally meant, and how it all got confused see:

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1 Comment | Leave a comment


Interesting post, well~ its really good that we already have google and find the books we wanted for just seconds. Sadly, not all books including older ones are already in google.

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