The rhyming proverb an apple a day keeps the doctor away is an exhortation to eat a healthy diet.
First recorded in the late 19th century, it postdates rhyming variants by several years; the earliest that I have found is from The Bradford Observer (Bradford, Yorkshire, England) of Thursday 1st March 1866—Pembrokeshire is a county of south-western Wales:
A Pembrokeshire Proverb:—
“Eat an apple on going to bed,
And you’ll keep the doctor from earning his bread.”
The English lawyer, bibliographer, editor and author William Carew Hazlitt (1834-1913) recorded the very same Pembrokeshire proverb in English Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases Collected from the Most Authentic Sources: Alphabetically Arranged and Annotated (London, 1869).
The earliest American-English occurrence of the proverb that I have found is from The Lawrence Daily Journal (Lawrence, Kansas, USA) of Friday 21st December 1888:
“Eat an apple on going to bed, and you will keep the doctor from earning his bread.”
William Thomas Fernie (1830-1914), a British Doctor of Medicine, gave scientific backing to what he called “a modern maxim” in The History and Capabilities of Herbal Simples. IV.—The Apple, published in The Hospital (London, England) of Saturday 8th February 1890—an English botanist, John Gerard (circa 1545-1612) was the author of The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, first published in 1597:
Chemically, the apple is composed of vegetable fibre, albumen, sugar, gum, chlorophyll, malic acid, gallic acid, lime, and much water. Furthermore, the German analysts say that the apple contains a larger percentage of phosphorus than any other fruit or vegetable. This phosphorus is admirably adapted for renewing the essential nervous matter, lethicin [misprint for lecithin], of the brain and spinal chord. It is perhaps for the same reason, rudely understood, that old Scandinavian traditions represent the apple as the food of the gods, who, when they felt themselves to be growing feeble and infirm, resorted to this fruit for renewing their powers of mind and body. Also, the acids of the apple are of signal use for men of sedentary habits, whose livers are sluggish in action; these acids serving to eliminate from the body noxious matters which, if retained, would make the brain heavy and dull, or bring about jaundice or skin eruptions, and other allied troubles. Some such an experience must have led to our custom of taking apple-sauce with roast pork, rich goose, and like dishes. The malic acid of ripe apples, either raw or cooked, will neutralise any excess of chalky matter engendered by eating too much meat. It is also the fact that such fresh fruits as the apple, the pear, and the plum, when taken ripe and without sugar, diminish acidity in the stomach rather than provoke it. Their vegetable salts and juices are converted into alkaline carbonates, which tend to counteract acidity. A good ripe, raw apple is one of the easiest vegetable substances for the stomach to deal with, the whole process of its digestion being completed in eighty-five minutes. Gerard found that the “pulpe of roasted apples mixed in a wine-quart of faire water, and laboured together until it comes to be as apples and ale—which we call lambeswool—never faileth in certain diseases of the raines, which myself hath often proved, and gained thereby both crownes and credit.” “The paring of an apple, cut somewhat thick, and the inside whereof is laid to hot, burning, or running eyes at night, when the party goes to bed; and is tied, or bound to the same, doth help the trouble very speedily, and contrary to expectation—an excellent secret.” A poultice made of rotten apples is of very common use in Lincolnshire for the cure of weak or rheumatic eyes. Likewise in the Hotel des Invalides, at Paris, an apple poultice is used commonly for inflamed eyes, the apple being roasted, and its pulp applied over the eyes without any intervening substance. Long ago it was said apples do easily and speedily pass through the belly; therefore they do mollify the belly; and, for the same reason, a modern maxim teaches that—
To eat an apple going to bed,
The doctor then will beg his bread.
Later in 1890, many U.K. and U.S. newspapers quoted Fernie’s article, thus probably giving currency to the proverb; for example, the following is from The Monmouth Inquirer (Freehold, New Jersey, USA) of Thursday 17th April 1890:
“Eat an apple going to bed, the doctor then will beg his bread,” says the London Hospital.
In the following, published in the West Schuylkill Press (Tremont, Pennsylvania, USA) of Saturday 25th April 1891, the anonymous author opposed the ‘silliness’ of the “old saying” apples are gold in the morning, silver at noon and lead at night to the ‘truth’ of “the new saying” who eats an apple when going to bed will send the doctor to beg his bread:
Apples as Medicine.
Who Eats an Apple Going to Bed Will Send the Doctor to Beg His Bread.
It’s veritable nonsense that “apples are gold in the morning, silver at noon and lead at night.” This old saying is as silly a one as that the Germans have given us—that “a bad beginning makes a good ending”—neither are true. Apples are always gold, figuratively speaking, and don’t I, who like a good ripe raw apple just before going to bed at night, especially when I’ve stayed up long enough to get a bit hungry, know something about them?
[The author then summarises the medical arguments presented by William Thomas Fernie in the above-quoted article published in The Hospital of 8th February 1890.]
It is said that he or she who eats apples daily cannot be ill; nor do they age rapidly; nor do they have a chance to grow bilious—and as a natural sequence, irritable and unbearable. And I believe that as false as the old saying about apples being bad at night the new saying concerning them is true and that—
Who eats an apple when going to bed
Will send the doctor to beg his bread!
More generally, in the late 19th century, medical science may have popularised the virtues of eating an apple before going to bed—as illustrated by the following from the Evening Telegraph (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) of Thursday 10th December 1896:
Medical Opinion About Apples.
A French writer has been collecting medical opinions about apples. An American doctor says that apples contain more phosphorus than any other fruit, or indeed any kind of vegetable, and advises the eating of an apple before going to bed at night. Apples, says a well-known French doctor, induce a more quiet sleep than chloral or opium. They also give relief in cases of neuralgia and muscular rheumatism.
Incidentally, on Wednesday 13th November 1850, the Weekly Wisconsin (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA) sarcastically suggested that to feed a baby with green apples before going to bed could serve a very different purpose:
Protection against Burglars.—There is no safer protection against burglars, than to feed your baby before going to bed with green apples. It will begin to bellow before midnight, and it is a sure thing that it can’t be stopped before morning. A friend of ours has tried it, and recommends the remedy.
Variants of this sardonic recommendation appeared in various U.S. newspapers later in 1850, and in U.K. newspapers in 1851—for example in the Reading Mercury, Oxford Gazette, Newbury Herald, and Berks County Paper (Reading, Berkshire, England) of Saturday 8th February 1851:
There is no safer protection against burglars, than to give your baby a green apple before going to bed. It will begin to bellow before midnight, and it is a sure thing that it can’t be stopped before morning.
The earliest instance of an apple a day keeps the doctor away that I have found is from South Wales Notes, by ‘Cosmos’, in the South Wales Daily News (Cardiff, Glamorgan, Wales) of Thursday 18th February 1892:
FRUIT FOR BREAKFAST.
Now that fruit is so cheap, I wonder it is not seen on every breakfast table. The morning is the time for its consumption, and an orange is a valuable dietetic. The old proverb has it—
An apple a day
Keeps the doctor away.
And to begin the day with fruit has a beneficial effect on our constitutions. We eat too much meat, and the wisdom of enforced fast days upon the populace is becoming to be recognised. A change in our mode of living cannot be without its advantages, and would save many a dose of medicine.
‘Cosmos’, therefore, wrote that an apple a day keeps the doctor away was an “old proverb”, and he seemed to imply that it referred specifically to eating an apple at breakfast. This idea had already been expressed in the Chester Daily Times (Chester, Pennsylvania, USA) of Saturday 17th August 1878:
Fruit eaten before breakfast is an appetizer, and keeps the doctor away. Remember this.
But in the following from the North-Eastern Daily Gazette (Middlesbrough, Yorkshire, England) of Tuesday 24th October 1893, the “old-time” proverb an apple a day keeps the doctor away refers to the apple as “an article of daily diet”:
The medicinal qualities and grateful nutriment of the apple are undoubted, and the habit of making the fruit an article of daily diet must have beneficial effects on our constitutions which cannot be denied. The old-time couplet,
An apple a day
Keeps the doctor away,
has a foundation in fact which should recommend the truth of it to many, while it will but confirm the experience of hundreds of others.
This interesting article—in which appears the variant an apple a day sends the doctor away—is from Our Miscellany, published in the Bradford Daily Telegraph (Bradford, Yorkshire, England) of Thursday 2nd November 1899—the “West Countree” designates Devon and Cornwall, two counties of south-western England:
Apples were at one time under-estimated; they were scarcely a fruit rare enough or luscious enough for the consideration of the epicure, unless, indeed, they formed a part of some elaborate dessert, compounded and cooked by a skilled housekeeper. Apple jellies, puddings, pies, and cakes might do; but plain, raw apples were fit only for school children, vegetarians, of the poor. All this is now changed and the apple has come to its own again.
But if its flavour has been at various times lightly esteemed or discredited, at least its wholesomeness has been steadily recognised. Apple-sayings are frequent, both in America and in our own country, all of which testify in favour of the fruit. In the “West Countree” there are four such: “An apple a day sends the doctor away,” is the first and briefest. Then follow, in the order of their vigour, three more:—
Apple in the morning,
Roast apple at night
Starved the doctor outright.
Eat an apple going to bed
Knocked the doctor on the head.
A little aggressive is one of the Midlands:—
Three each day, sev’n days a week
Ruddy apple, ruddy cheek.
But more interesting than these is an old orchard verse which used to be recited on certain ancient farms on the plucking of the first ripe apples of the crop. Misfortune was supposed to follow its omission, and its utterance was quite a little ceremony, the first apple, over which it was spoken, being presented to a young girl, who halved and bit it before any other further fruit was gathered, or at least tasted. Thus it ran:—
The fruit of Eve receive and cleave,
And taste the flesh therein;
A wholesome food, for man ’tis good
That once for man was sin.
And since ’tis sweet, why, pluck and eat,
The Lord will have it so;
For that which Eve did grieve, believe
Hath wrought its all of woe—
Eat the apple!