Yesterday, I was honored to be interviewed on the premier podcast of The Vegan Society, the vegan movement’s preeminent membership society. Tracing its roots to the Vegetarian Society founded in 1847, The Vegan Society owes its existence to one Donald Watson, a man well ahead of his time.
From the time they organized, The Vegetarian Society argued among themselves about allowing dairy and eggs. By 1935, the debate had attracted attention from the editor of The Vegetarian Messenger, who wrote:
“The question as to whether dairy products should be used by vegetarians becomes more pressing year by year.”
The editor invited written input from anyone following a dairy-free diet. The first response he quoted came from a Mr. Donald Watson, who explained his vegan lifestyle.
Nine years later, in 1944, Watson tried to create a Vegetarian Society subgroup of dairy and egg abstainers. His efforts, however, were rebuffed. Just three months later, he and his five companions held The Vegan Society’s first meeting.
Their first order of business was choosing a name from a list that included the following:
The winning suggestion, however, was “Vegan.” It came from Watson and his wife Dorothy.
Watson later recalled: “The word ‘vegan’ was created from the first and last letters of ‘vegetarian’ because the diet grew out of vegetarianism and was seen as its natural conclusion.”
Never afraid to point out the difference between the two ideologies, Watson pulled no punches when addressing a vegetarian association in 1947:
“The vegan believes there is nothing in the idea of vegetarianism so long as this regrettable practice of eating more dairy produce continues. Indeed the use of milk must be a greater crime than the use of flesh-foods, since after all the exploitation of motherhood and calf killing, the cow must face the slaughter-house. Thus the dairy cow suffers far more than the bullock taken from the field and slaughtered.”
He then turned to veganism’s health benefits:
“The rotting of the human body, which is marked by the death rates for certain diseases almost doubling in a generation, is caused chiefly by wrong nutrition…[by} Eliminating animal food will the diet problem be solved… raw vegetable food, properly selected, is the most potent healing factor that exists.”
The environment was also a Society concern as early as 1945, if Dugald Semple’s observation in their Vegan News’ third issue is any indication:
“…we must give up our present wasteful system of raising cattle instead of growing food direct for human use.”
In 1979, the 35-year-old organization pulled these three reasons into the definition of veganism in their application to become a registered charity:
“ […] a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude ‘as far as is possible and practicable’ all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment.”
How important did Donald Watson consider his role as veganism’s founder? From his 2005 obituary, in his own words:
“One can hardly rise higher in one’s opinion of one’s life in general, than to feel I was instrumental in starting a great new movement which could even not only change the course of things for Humanity and the rest of Creation, but alter Man’s expectation of surviving for much longer on this planet.”
Looking back over the 76 years since he created The Vegan Society, I’m both inspired by his life and grateful for the work his organization has done!