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Vegetarianism isn’t anything new. Despite our modern obsession with dietary fads and an incorrect idea that vegetarianism – veganism especially – are somehow part of a “hipster movement”, this couldn’t be further from the case.
Vegetarianism can be traced to the Indus Valley in modern-day Pakistan northern India all the way back to 3300–1300 BCE. Early vegetarians included Indian philosophers such as Mahavira and Acharya Kundakunda, the Tamil poet Valluvar, the Indian emperors Chandragupta Maurya and Ashoka; Greek philosophers such as Empedocles, Theophrastus, Plutarch, Plotinus, and Porphyry; and the Roman poet Ovid and the playwright Seneca the Younger.
It was Pythagoras however who is said to have made vegetarianism famous by sticking to a strict plant-based diet. But although a “Pythagorean diet” was another name for vegetarianism, due to the how little we know about Pythagoras, it is disputed whether he ever advocated any form of vegetarianism at all.
One of the earliest known followers of what we would today call a vegan diet was the Arab poet al-Maʿarri (c. 973 – c. 1057). Similar to today, the poet gave up animal products to aid his health and because of their beliefs on the transmigration of souls and animal welfare.
Fast forward to 1806 and the earliest concepts of veganism are just starting to take shape, with Dr William Lambe – one of the pioneers of modern dietetics – and poet Percy Bysshe Shelley amongst the first to publicly object to eggs and dairy on ethical ground. Both were members of The Vegetarian Society of England and tried vegetarianism due to poor health, but soon championed the diet as it greatly improved their quality of life.
But it wasn’t until November 1944 until the word ‘vegan’ was invented by Donald Watson in England. But the origins are not how many vegans today might imagine.
In the mid-20th century, there were a number of members of the English Vegetarian Society who wanted to form a distinct section within the Society of ‘non-dairy vegetarians’. To help differentiate themselves the needed a name, so Watson simply took the beginning and end of ‘vegetarian’ – and the world’s first Vegan Society was born.
In the group’s first newsletter, Watson proposes the word ‘Vegan’ and says “Should we adopt this, our diet will soon become known as a VEGAN diet.”
The idea started to spread and by during the 1940s and 50s vegan societies were founded in California, Germany and India.
The original British group joined the International Vegetarian Union and Donald Watson spoke on ‘Veganism’ at the 1947 IVU World Vegetarian Congress. There was a lot of discussion about the definition of the new word, as initially, it was just about diet, but new rules were adopted by the Vegan Society in 1951 that went much further than simply 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. 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.” This manifesto changed the Vegan Society from a dietary based movement to an animal rights group.
In 1960 the American Vegan Society was founded, and Veganism started to spread through America and the rest of the western world.
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.
Since 1994 (50th anniversary), World Vegan Day has been celebrated on November 1 each year in recognition of Dr Watson’s invention of the word. And today, the vegan diet is an accepted and widely embraced part of eating in Australia. There are numerous vegan cafes, restaurants and some very fine chefs priding themselves on serving only the best vegan cuisine.