Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The First Vegan

Photo: Food for Life
Donald Watson, founder of the Vegan Society and originator of the word ‘vegan’ died at his home in Keswick at the age of 95 on November 16, 2005.

The son of a headmaster in the mining community of Mexborough, South Yorkshire, he was born (2 September 1910) into an environment in which vegetarianism, let alone veganism, was unknown. Donald’s parents, however, encouraged and supported their three children in determining their own paths in life, a liberal approach which enabled Donald to formulate ideas which were both challenging and controversial. He held his parents in great esteem, and often expressed his gratitude for their wisdom in accepting, if not understanding, his philosophy.

An obviously sensitive young man, Donald responded to the harshness and brutality of much which he observed in the industrial and farming community in which he grew up early last century, and he developed a great reverence for and in-depth knowledge of the countryside. An acute observer of the natural order and perfection of creation, this throughout life became his inspiration and guide, and led him to question man’s place in nature and his relationship with other species.

He became a vegetarian at the age of fourteen, although he knew of no others who followed this precept. A self-critical and free thinker, throughout his life he always responded to his inner convictions, regardless of any personal inconvenience or difficulties which this might entail. He was a quiet, strong-minded perfectionist, an abstemious man – teetotaller and non-smoker – who tried to avoid contact with any foods or substances which he regarded as ‘toxins’. Never one to criticise others, he himself never felt that his way of life demanded any personal sacrifice; rather, he puzzled at the risks, as he perceived them, which others took so readily.

On leaving school at the age of fifteen, he became apprenticed to a family joinery firm where he perfected the skills necessary to continue a life-long love of working with wood, later (from the age of twenty) becoming a teacher of this subject. He taught in Leicester, where he also played a large part in the Leicester Vegetarian Society, and later in Keswick, where he was able to enjoy his love of fell-walking and organic vegetable gardening until very shortly before his death.

From his early conversion to vegetarianism, he later came to view the abstention from the use of all animal products as the logical extension of this philosophy. A committed pacifist throughout his life, he registered as a conscientious objector in the war, and faced the harshest challenges to his ethical position.

It was at this time that the need for a word to describe his way of life, and a society to promote its ideals, became apparent; together with his wife, Dorothy, they decided on the word ‘vegan’ by taking the first three and last two letters of ‘vegetarian’, - ‘because veganism starts with vegetarianism and carries it through to its logical conclusion’, and the Society was founded in 1944. Donald ran this single-handed for two years, writing and duplicating the newsletter, and responding to the increasing volume of correspondence.

From these early beginnings, more than sixty years ago, the world-wide movement which exists today developed, with the word ‘vegan’ appearing with increasing frequency on food labelling and restaurant menus.

Donald continued his life quietly in Keswick where he taught for twenty-three years; also working with the Cumbrian Vegetarian Society, campaigning through the local press on matters important in his home community, and, together with his family, enjoying his love of the mountains.

He never sought any recognition for his early work in founding the Vegan Society, and indeed actively shunned the limelight, concerned only that his vision for a more compassionate way of life in harmony with the natural order should take root and grow. He was concerned to confound his many critics who claimed that he could not survive on his proposed diet by proving that he would not only survive but survive well and free from the need for doctors’ interventions until his final days.

Within the last ten years of his life he climbed many of the major peaks of the Lake District. He viewed his home and garden in Keswick as his ‘little piece of heaven’, and died peacefully there.

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