Location, location: the influence of the local climate on health

Last week (and much of the weeks before), as most of you in the northwest of Europe may have noted, it was hot. While I was in the UK and spent most of my time in thoroughly air-conditioned libraries, it did not bother me much. But then I came back home, and for all kinds of practical reasons it was more convenient to work from my decidedly un-air-conditioned, early twentieth-century house than to make the four-hour round trip commute to my office at the University of Groningen, or to hide in other libraries.

Professor Wouter van Doeveren, 1730-1783
Professor Wouter van Doeveren, 1730-1783

So there I was. I was supposed to be writing a paper, but seemed to suffer from something I’ll unscientifically define as ‘cooked brain.’ Nothing sensible seemed to come out of my hands or mind. Maybe I should have gone to Groningen after all, as I suddenly remembered an oration by an eighteenth-century Dutch professor of anatomy who taught at Groningen and later at Leiden. Wouter van Doeveren (1730-1783) in 1770 gave an oration on the beneficial climate of the city of Groningen – it was his farewell to the city where he had worked for sixteen years.

Today, Dutch people still joke about the north of the Netherlands being colder than the south or even the middle, which seems rather ridiculous as the distances are tiny, the landscape is rather unvaried, and the entire country has a mild marine climate (Cfb in the Köppen-system). However, there is some truth to those quips: on the website of the Royal Dutch Meteorological Institute (KNMI), there are maps of the long-term average temperatures in the Netherlands, and these do show that on average, the west is about a degree Celsius or so warmer than the middle of the country, and the east is even a bit colder in winter, whereas in summer it is the other way around.  So although it is more of a west-east divide than the popular idea of a north-south divide suggests, there are climatological differences in this tiny country.

View of the city of Groningen from the side of the Aa gate (the Aa is a river), 1750-1850.  The subscript reads: "This is Groningen, jewel of the  history journals because of its heroics. Famous for its diligence and rich growth, it is called the country's crown jewel." Courtesy of Leiden University Library.
View of the city of Groningen from the side of the Aa gate (the Aa is a river), 1750-1850. The subscript reads: “This is Groningen, jewel of the history journals because of its heroics. Famous for its diligence and rich growth, it is called the country’s crown jewel.” Courtesy of Leiden University Library.

Van Doeveren had no KNMI maps, yet he did know that ‘the moderate marine climate of Groningen is beneficial for the body.’ The rather cool climate, according to his lecture, was good for people, as the cold enhances the solidity and resilience of the fibres of the body, strengthening it and thus multiplying the force of life.[1]  As he readily admitted, his ideas were based on the work of Hippocrates, who argued that studying the climate in various regions and cities and its influence on different bodies could provide information on the benefits of certain climates to human health.[2] However, Van Doeveren disappointedly noted that although the climate and the natural resources of Groningen made it a rather healthy place, the population still wrought havoc on itself by choosing a diet of ‘corned or smoked meat and fish, pickled vegetables, old and sharp cheese,’ and unhealthy drinks like ‘acerb, sharp wines, strong spirits, and watery extracts.’[3]

With Van Doeveren’s wise words in mind, I made a fresh salad and a jug of not-too-watery lemonade, put my fan on my desk, and got on with it. Next time we have a heat wave, I’ll take the salad and the lemonade to Groningen!


[1] Doeveren, Wouter van. Sermo Academicus De Sanitatis Groninganorum Praesidiis, Ex Urbis Naturali Historia Derivandis / Dictus Cum Iterum Fasces Academicos Poneret. Groningae 1770, p.9-10.

[2] Hippocrates, De Aeribus, Aquis et Locis

[3] Doeveren, Wouter van, 1770, p. 34.