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Donald Watson, Founder of Veganism, 1910-2005

Donald Watson, Founder of Veganism, 1910–2005

London Times

Donald Watson

September 2, 1910 – November 16, 2005

Founder of veganism whose dietary crusade grew to attract a quarter of a million adherents in Britain today

Donald Watson survived to the age of 95; good propaganda in his campaign to convince the world that there is nothing inherently lethal about a vegan diet. He always regarded himself as a propagandist, in the term’s non-pejorative sense. When interviewed at 92 he was pleased to report that he had lived thus far without resort to medication “either orthodox or fringe”, and with hardly a day’s illness.His parents were meat-eaters who did not enjoy particularly good health or long lives. His father, a headmaster who had worked his way up from being a farm boy, impressed on his son the importance of never swearing, which was helpful, Watson said, when spreading the word: “It annoys some people, and propagandists should not annoy anyone except with the truth of their message.”

While staying at the farm run by his much-loved Uncle George, Watson was shocked to see his uncle direct the slaughter of a pig. Its screams remained with him ever after. “I decided that farms — and uncles — had to be reassessed: the idyllic scene was nothing more than death row, where every creature’s days were numbered.” He became a vegetarian, but continued to worry about dairy and other animal products and the way in which their industries were linked to the slaughterhouses.

He left school at 14, but failed to find a job as a woodworker in the Depression, so he trained as a woodwork teacher. When war came in 1939 he registered as a conscientious objector. His elder brother and younger sister later joined him as vegetarians and COs. All were teetotallers and non-smokers, causing Watson’s mother to say that she felt like a hen that had hatched a clutch of duck eggs.

Towards the end of the war, Watson formed a committee of “non-dairy vegetarians”, who wanted to remove animal products entirely from their diet and initiate a new movement. He was keen to capitalise on the tuberculosis reported in Britain’s dairy cows, and the scarcity of eggs. He laid out the first issue of his Vegan News in November 1944, over 12 typed and stapled sheets of A4. The word vegan he took from the front and back end of “vegetarian”, expressing his belief that this new, absolutist diet was in fact the first impulse and the final destination of the vegetarian journey. He asked for other suggestions, and “dairyban”, “vitan”, “benevore”, “sanivore” and “beaumangeur” were offered, but most of the 25 members were happiest with vegan.

The early issues of the newssheet, written in Watson’s straightforward but eloquent style, became the “Dead Sea scrolls” of veganism, the first warning to the faithful that: “We may be sure that should anything so much as a pimple ever appear to mar the beauty of our physical form, it will be entirely due in the eyes of the world to our own silly fault for not eating ‘proper food’. Against such a pimple the great plagues of diseases now ravaging nearly all members of civilised society (who eat ‘proper food’) will pass unnoticed.” Subscriptions rose rapidly, but his meagre resources limited the print run to 500. The Vegan Society’s 25 members swelled steadily to the 5,000 of today. There are now an estimated 250,000 vegans in Britain.

The American Vegan Society, and other international groups, cropped up without any prompting or help from Watson who, in later years, served the Vegan Society mainly as a source of inspiration.

While other vegans, such as Alan Long, were willing to lambast lacto-vegetarians as co-conspirators of the dairy industry, Watson insisted that vegetarianism was an essential “staging post” to a true diet. Watson never set out to be a guru. When asked whether he condemned or condoned animal liberation groups, he always maintained that he simply could not make up his mind on them.

He moved to Cumbria, where his one-acre vegetable patch was his main concern — always turned over with a fork instead of a spade to avoid killing worms.

His wife predeceased him. He is survived by his daughter.

Donald Watson, founder of veganism, was born on September 2, 1910. He died on November 16, 2005, aged 95.