(Roughly) Daily

“Some maladies are rich and precious, and only to be acquired by the right of inheritance or purchased with gold”*…




Gout is a disease caused by high levels of uric acid in the blood. Everyone has some uric acid in their blood, but when you get too much, it can form little crystals that get deposited around your body and cause various problems, most commonly joint pain. Some uric acid comes from chemicals found in certain foods (especially meat), so the first step for a gout patient is to change their diet. If that doesn’t work, they can take various chemicals that affect uric acid metabolism or prevent inflammation.

Gout is traditionally associated with kings, probably because they used to be the only people who ate enough meat to be affected. Veal, venison, duck, and beer are among the highest-risk foods; that list sounds a lot like a medieval king’s dinner menu. But as kings faded from view, gout started affecting a new class of movers and shakers. King George III had gout, but so did many of his American enemies, including Franklin, Jefferson, and Hancock (beginning a long line of gout-stricken US politicians, most recently Bernie Sanders). Lists of other famous historical gout sufferers are contradictory and sometimes based on flimsy evidence, but frequently mentioned names include Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, Leonardo da Vinci, Martin Luther, John Milton, Isaac Newton, Ludwig von Beethoven, Karl Marx, Charles Dickens, and Mark Twain.

Question: isn’t this just a list of every famous person ever? It sure seems that way, and even today gout seems to disproportionately strike the rich and powerful. In 1963, Dunn, Brooks, and Mausner published Social Class Gradient Of Serum Uric Acid Levels In Males, showing that in many different domains, the highest-ranking and most successful men had the highest uric acid (and so, presumably, the most gout). Executives have higher uric acid than blue-collar workers. College graduates have higher levels than dropouts. Good students have higher levels than bad students. Top professors have higher levels than mediocre professors. DB&M admitted rich people probably still eat more meat than poor people, but didn’t think this explained the magnitude or universality of the effect. They proposed a different theory: maybe uric acid makes you more successful.

Before we mock them, let’s take more of a look at why they might think that, and at the people who have tried to flesh out their theory over the years….

From the always-illuminating Scott Alexander (@slatestarcodex), a consideration of the case: “Give yourself gout for fame and profit.”

For the NIH’s backgrounder on gout, see here— the source of the image above.

* Nathaniel Hawthorne


As we feed our ambition, we might spare a thought for Charles William “C. W.” Post; he died on this date in 1914.  Post began his career as a farm implement manufacturer in Illinois, but succumbed to stress, and had a nervous breakdown.  On recovering, he moved to Texas and began a second career as a real estate developer… but fell prey again to the pressures of his work and had another breakdown.  In 1891, he checked into the Battle Creek, Michigan the sanatorium of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (brother of cereal maker Will Keith Kellogg).

While there, Post dined on Kellogg recipes, several of which became the (stolen, some argue) seeds of his very successful third career.  Early in 1895, Post began manufacturing Postum, a grain product intended as a coffee substitute, very similar to one of Kellogg’s concoctions, Caramel Coffee Cereal.  The following year, he began to produce Grape-Nuts, which seemed very like Malted Nuts, another Kellogg item.  And soon thereafter he introduced Toasties, a dead ringer for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes.

Kellogg’s has, of course survived and prospered.  But Post’s “Postum Cereal Company” grew up to be General Foods.

220px-C.W._Post_LCCN2014696048_(cropped) source



Written by LW

May 9, 2020 at 1:01 am

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