Sunday, May 19, 2024

History of the Vegan Movement

Most of us think that the vegan movement began in 1944 when Donald Watson formed the first Vegan Society in the UK.  But evidence of people choosing to avoid animal products can be traced back over 2,000 years.  Some of these vegetarians also avoided other animal products such as milk, eggs and clothing which came from animals.

Ancient Egypt and Greece

A vegetarian ideology was practised among religious groups in Egypt around 3,200BCE, with abstinence from flesh and the wearing of animal derived clothing based upon beliefs in karma and reincarnation.  

The Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras (580 BCE) was a vegetarian.  He viewed vegetarianism as a key factor in peaceful human co-existence, holding the view that slaughtering animals brutalised the human soul. The term ‘Pythagorean’ became synonymous with vegetarianism, which spread throughout the Roman Empire from the 3rd to 6th centuries, influencing Plutarch (46AD) who wrote an essay on flesh eatingPorphyry (232AD) who wrote ‘On Abstinence From Animal Food’, and Apollonius who was a strict vegetarian.

Eastern Religions

Hindus, Buddhists and Jains have all long promoted plant based diets for ethical reasons. Vegetarianism was encouraged in the Upanishads and also mentioned in the Rig Veda – the most sacred of ancient Hindu texts.  Doctrines of non-violence and respect for all life forms were central to these religions.  An early Jain called Parsva (877-777 BC), taught followers about ‘Ahimsa’ which means non-violence to living beings.

Vegetarianism has always been central to Buddhism, which enshrines compassion to all living creatures. Taoism and Chinese Buddhism in the late 4th century stipulated that their monks and nuns were to eat an egg free vegetarian diet.


Followers of Manicheanism, a form of Christianity which was practiced between the 3rd and 10th centuries AD, believed in a philosophy of non-violence and were against animal slaughter.  Two well known Christian saints – Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint David (Patron Saint of Wales) – were vegetarians.

Several Christian communities have taught that instead of ruling and dominating, humans should think of themselves as having stewardship over the planet and every creature. Among these is the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which highlights a passage in the Bible saying that God created plants, seeds and fruits to be human food, and therefore human diets should be entirely plant-based (Genesis 1:29). 

Adventists are often entirely plant-based or vegetarian.  Although the focus of their founding member Ellen White was on human health and wellbeing, her statements about compassion towards animals as sentient beings were almost unprecedented in the mid-19th century:

“[The animals] manifest sympathy and tenderness toward their companions in suffering. Many animals show an affection for those who have charge of them, far superior to the affection shown by some of the human race. They form attachments for man which are not broken without great suffering to them. What man with a human heart, who has ever cared for domestic animals, could look into their eyes, so full of confidence and affection, and willingly give them over to the butcher’s knife? How could he devour their flesh as a sweet morsel?”

Rennaissance and Englightenment

Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) was repulsed by the slaughter of animals and openly denounced the eating of meat.  The 17th century British philosopher John Locke voiced arguments that animals were intelligent feeling creatures and he raised moral objections to the mistreatment of animals.  There was a re-emergence of the view that flesh consumption was an aberration from God’s will and from humanity’s real nature.

Famous vegetarians of the period included the poets John Gay and Alexander Pope, penal reformer John Howard, and creator of the Methodist movement John Wesley. Great philosophers such as Voltaire and Rousseau questioned man’s inhumanity to animals. Thomas Paine’s extremely influential ‘The Rights of Man’ (1791) raised wider animal rights issues.

In 1806 the earliest concepts of veganism were just starting to take shape, with Dr. William Lambe and Percy Bysshe Shelley amongst the first Europeans to publicly object to eggs and dairy on ethical grounds. By the 1880s, vegetarian restaurants had become popular in London.

UK Vegan Society (1944)

In July 1943 The Vegetarian Messenger, the magazine of the UK Vegetarian Society, printed a letter from Leslie Cross condemning the consumption of cows’ milk.  Cross, who had become vegan in 1942, corresponded with the Vegetarian Society for many months, culminating in Donald Watson asking vegetarians interested in avoiding dairy to write him. Over 50 responses were received and in August 1944 he and Elsie Shrigley petitioned the Vegetarian Society to allow a non-dairy group to be set up. Their request was refused, and Watson and Shrigley went on to form the Vegan Society in November 1944.  

The effect of World War 2

The pioneers of the vegan movement had just been through World War 2, which had a profound and shocking effect on them.  They believed that veganism was a necessary and fundamental part of the moral evolution of humanity. Watson said:

“We don’t know the spiritual advancements that long term veganism – I mean not over years or even decades, but over generations, would have on human life.  It would be certainly a different civilisation, and the first one in the whole of our history that would truly deserve the title of being a civilisation.  Full stop.”  (Source: Roger Yates)

In spring 1946, the first issue of The Vegan magazine was published (back issues of which can be viewed here).

Definition of Veganism

In 1949 Leslie Cross pointed out that the society lacked a definition of veganism and he suggested: “[T]he principle of the emancipation of animals from exploitation by man”, later clarified as: “To seek an end to the use of animals by man for food, commodities, work, hunting, vivisection, and by all other uses involving exploitation of animal life by man”.  (Source: Roger Yates)

When the society became a registered charity in 1979, the Memorandum and Articles of Association defined “veganism” as:  […] 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 alernatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment.”

The early Vegans were also pioneers of what we now call environmentalism and green issues. For vegans, the lifestyle encompassed a natural way of living that respected not just sentient beings but the very planet we inhabit.

Major Figures in the Early Vegan Movement

Around seven people attended the founding meeting of the Vegan Society at The Attic Club in London in November 1944.  Some of the early figures in the vegan movement included:

Donald Watson (1910-2005)

Watson’s name is synonymous with the vegan movement and he is usually referred to as the founder of the Vegan Society. He was born in Yorkshire, the son of a headmaster in a mining community. He later became a teacher.  As a child, Watson spent time on his uncle’s farm. The slaughtering of a pig on the farm horrified him and he became a vegetarian at the age of fourteen. He gave up dairy products about 18 years later, having seen that the production of milk-related products was unethical.

Donald Watson

Watson was sickened by the events of World War Two, and saw the vegan movement as the ‘salvation of Man’.  The vegan pioneers saw a connection between humanity’s tyranny towards each other and towards animals.  In 1988 Watson wrote about the beginnings of the vegan movement:

“Perhaps it seemed to us a fitting antidote to the sickening experience of war, and a reminder that we should be doing more about the other holocaust that goes on all the time.  Or perhaps it was that we were conscious of a remarkable omission in all previous vegetarian literature – namely, that though nature provides us with lots of examples of carnivores and vegetarians it provides us with no examples of lacto-carnivores or lacto-vegetarians. Such groups are freaks and only made possible by man’s capacity to exploit the reproductive functions of other species. This, we thought, could not be right either dietetically or ethically.  It was certainly wrong aesthetically, and we could conceive of no spectacle more bizarre than that of a grown man attached at his meal-times to the udder of a cow.” (Source)

Watson declared that all other movements are “lesser” compared to veganism because they had a limited vision of the future. He said that other movements were like people re-arranging deckchairs on the Titanic, whereas they could be helping the vegans who were busy shining their searchlight “on the iceberg which is going to be the end of the whole show.” (Source: Roger Yates)

In his address to the International Vegetarian Congress in 1947, Watson said:  “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 slaughterhouse. Thus the dairy cow suffers far more than the bullock taken from the field and slaughtered.”

Watson also emphasised the health aspects of the vegan diet and showed how veganism could abolish food shortages throughout the world.

Leslie Cross (1914-1979)

Leslie Cross

Donald Watson stated that Leslie Cross was a great friend of his and one of the outstanding contributors to the early years of the vegan movement. Both men saw veganism as something that would emancipate human and other animals.   In 1956 Cross set up the Plantmilk Society. The company, later renamed as ‘Plamil’, produced one of the first widely distributed soy milks in the Western world.

Elsie Shrigley

Elsie Shrigley

Elsie Beatrice Shrigley , also known as Sally Shrigley, was a co-founder of The Vegan Society in 1944.  She is credited by some as coining the word “vegan” with Watson.  As early as 1947 Sally researched a small list of ‘vegan commodities’ – biscuits, chocolate and sweets – which was published in The Vegan magazine.  This was the beginning of the project that became the Animal Free Shopper. In the early 1960s Sally was President of The Vegan Society and at various times she occupied more or less every other official position.  She served continuously on the Society’s committee until her death in May 1978.

Fay Henderson

According to commentators, Henderson was more visible in the vegan movement than Watson. She wrote literature for the Vegan Society, served as a vice-president, and toured Britain and Ireland giving lectures and cooking demonstrations. She put a lot of emphasis on education and was a prime mover in terms of raising the public consciousness of veganism.  In 1947, she wrote: “It is our duty to recognise the obligation we owe to these creatures and to understand all that is involved in the consumption and use of their live and dead products. Only thus shall we be properly equipped to decide our own attitude to the question and explain the case to others who may be interested but who have not given the matter serious thought.” (Source: Roger Yates).

Eva Batt

Eva Batt

Batt became vegan in 1954 and made major contributions to the spread of veganism. She was a highly active member of the Vegan Society, serving  fifteen years as chairperson, and edited the commodity pages of The Vegan for over two decades. The society published her two cookbooks: “What’s Cooking” (1973) and “What Else is Cooking” (1983). Batt was a council member of the American Vegan Society and a director of Plamil. She also worked with Beauty Without Cruelty, promoting cosmetics and clothing not derived from or tested on animals.  She owned a shop in Enfield, her hometown, that sold food, clothing, and footwear suitable for vegans.

Vegan Societies in other countries

The first vegan society in the United States was founded in 1948 by Catherine Nimmo and Rubin Abramowitz in California, who distributed Watson’s newsletter. In 1960, H. Jay Dinshah founded the American Vegan Society (AVS), linking veganism to the concept of ahimsa. Germany’s first vegan society was founded in the 1950s and the vegan society of India was founded in 1957.

Alternative food movements

In the 1960s and 1970s, a vegetarian food movement emerged as part of the counterculture in the US that focused on concerns about diet, the environment, and a distrust of food producers. One of the most influential vegetarian books of that time was Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet which suggested “getting off the top of the food chain”.

The following decades saw research by a group of scientists and doctors in the US, including physicians Dean Ornish, Caldwell Esselstyn, Neal Barnard, John McDougall, Michael Greger and T. Colin Campbell, who argued that diets based on animal fat and animal protein were detrimental to health. In 2003 two major North American dietitians’ associations indicated that well-planned vegan diets were suitable for all life stages. This was followed by the film Earthlings (2005), Campbell’s The China Study (2005), Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals (2009), and the film Forks over Knives (2011).

Veganism goes mainstream

The vegan diet became increasingly mainstream in the 2010s.  Chain restaurants began marking vegan items on their menus and supermarkets improved their selection of vegan processed food.  By 2016, 49% of Americans were drinking plant milk, and 14% of school districts across the country were serving vegan school meals. The growth of schools serving vegan school meals has increased in recent years.  As of 2016, the largest share of vegan consumers globally currently reside in Asia Pacific with 9% percent of people following a vegan diet.

A poll conducted by The Guardian at the end of 2021 showed that 36% of the British public were interested in veganism.

Veganism in the future

In 2018, the book The End of Animal Farming by Jacy Reese argued that veganism will completely replace animal-based food by 2100.  Whether you agree with the ethics or not, the earth simply cannot sustain a projected 9 billion people on a meat-based diet by 2050.  There are many businesses and projects worldwide which are trying to address this issue by providing alternatives to animal products.  As veganism and plant-based diets become more popular, for ethical, health and environmental reasons, we can feel confident that veganism is the future. However, we also need to be conscious that there is still a long road ahead and much more needs to be done.

Further Reading:

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