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Dr. James Salisbury - Inventor of the Salisbury Steak

489 East 88th Street
Dr. James Henry Salisbury
Dr. James Henry Salisbury

Dr. James Salisbury, a physician, and medical researcher, was a microscopist and a painstaking investigator who researched the germ-causation theory of disease. He published a myriad of medical articles, but perhaps he is best known as Salisbury Steak’s inventor.

James Henry Salisbury was born of Welsh descent in Scott, New York, on October 13, 1823, to Nathan and Lucretia Salisbury.  After receiving his early education at the Homer Academy, he graduated with a Bachelor of Natural Science degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1844. He joined the New York Geological Survey as an assistant chemist. In 1849, he was promoted to a principal chemist, serving until 1852.

As early as 1949, Salisbury had begun research into the study of germs as the cause of diseases while attending Albany Medical College. He earned his medical degree in 1850. His study of microscopic medicine was severely criticized in America and Europe. Sixteen years later, his findings were proved to be correct, but he had moved on to other research areas and did not share in the credit for his discovery.

Salisbury furthered his education by going to Schenectady, New York, to earn an M.A. degree from Union College in 1852. While attending Union College, he served as a lecturer on elementary and applied chemistry at the New York Normal School in Albany, New York, After which he applied himself to private practice and research.

He initiated the study of alimentation, diphtheria, intermittent and remittent fevers, measles, and other studies involving the use of the microscope.

In 1860, he began studying the origin and functions of blood. Later, he turned his attention to the relationship of food and drink to the occurrence of disease and advocated dietary measures as a cure. He is remembered for a beef dish used in his cures, to which he lent his name: Salisbury Steak.

Dr. Salisbury served as a physician during the American Civil War. Digestive illnesses killed more soldiers during the Civil War than combat. He became convinced that the troops’ diarrhea could be controlled with a coffee and lean chopped beefsteak diet.

After the Civil War, Salisbury came to Cleveland in 1865 to assist in founding the Charity Hospital Medical College, where he gave lectures on physiology, histology, and microscopic anatomy.

Salisbury was one of the earliest healthfood faddists, and he taught that diet was the main determinant of health. He believed that vegetables produced poisonous toxins in the digestive system were responsible for heart disease, tumors, mental illness, and tuberculosis. He believed that humans were meant to eat meat and sought to limit vegetables, fruit, starches, and fat to the diet.

He introduced his special blend of ground beef and other ingredients to achieve this goal. He suggested that it be eaten three times a day, with lots of water to cleanse the digestive system.

His other study areas included the chemical analysis of plants, the role of spores, fungi, and parasites as causes of diseases, and studies of ancient rocks and earth writings.

He was president of the Institute of Microbiology and maintained membership in many societies, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Albany Institute, The Natural History Society of Montreal, Canada, the Philosophical Society of Great Britain, The American Antiquarian Society, The Western Reserve Historical Society, and many others.

Charles married Clara Brasee in 1860. She was born on April 26, 1835. They had three children: Allice, born in 1861 who died at age 5; Mary B. (Pollock), born in 1866; and Trafford Brasee, born in 1874.

Salisbury died September 23, 1905, at his country home in Dobbs Ferry, New York. Clara died shortly afterward, on November 2, 1905. Both are buried in Lake View Cemetery.

The Salisbury Steak became cemented in the American lexicon during World War I. There was a movement to limit German-sounding words, so the Army served Salisbury Steak rather than Hamburger.

While patties of ground or tenderized beef remain common fare, Salisbury Steak is best known in our time as a staple of TV dinners and bargain buffets. The Salisbury diet has been described as an early example of a fad diet. Elma Stuart promoted the diet in her book, What Must I do to Get Well? It was published in at least 34 editions.