[This is part of a series I'm doing here on Retrospectacle called 'Science Vault.' Pretty much I'm just going to dig back into the forgotten and moldering annuls of scientific publications to find weird and interesting studies that very likely would never be published or done today (and perhaps never should have.) I'll probably try to do it once a week (and if you have suggestions, please do email me with them.)]
Its been nothing but roses lately for us coffee drinkers needing a scientific reason to validate our habit. The past couple weeks have yielded no less than four separate studies on the beneficial health effects of drinking coffee: reducing the risk of liver cancer, protection from age-related memory decline, cutting the risk of colon cancer in half, and caffeine + exercise might contribute to lower risk of skin cancer. With all these “real” benefits coming to light, it is amusing to discover that coffee (while once maligned as a bad habit) was once touted as a ground-breaking treatment for the Plague in 18th century Europe. Guess what? It didn’t work.
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Coffee drinking was on the rise during the mid 1600s, coffee houses spread through England filling an important niche–public meeting place which did not serve alcohol. Originally coffee was sold as a medicine, “the first steps it made from the cabinets of the curious as an exotick seed, having been into the apothecaries’ shops as a drug.” Coffee became increasingly popular during the plague of 1664 when it was believed to be therapeutic and protective against the “Contagion,” as it was called.
Specifically, a publication which came out during the plague of 1664-1665 entitled ‘Advice Against the Plague’ by Gideon Harvey recommended coffee against the contagion. Harvey was an eminent human physiologist, and played a large role in characterizing the circulatory system. He was also a great lover of coffee and upon his deathbed in 1657, bequeathed to the Royal Society the greatest treasure in his lab– 56 pounds of high-quality Venetian coffee.
In 1721, R. Bradley published a work entitled ‘The Virtue and Use of Coffee with Regard to the Plague and Other Infectious Distempers; Containing Most Remarkable Observations’ which spurred a renaissance in the belief that coffee protected from the plague. He goes on to discuss the reason why some plants, like the coffee plant, have fewer insect pests than others and attributes it to the presence in them of aromatic substances inimical to insects. He then infers that aromatic substances may be harmful to the poisonous insects which produce pestilential diseases and that this provides the justification for the common use of aromatics (coffee) during the plague.
Interestingly, while the use of coffee as a plague prophalactic was unproven, this work represented an early hypothesis of the “germ theory of disease” pre-Louis Pasteur. Bradley expresses his belief that one of the reasons why London had been free from the Plague since the epidemic of 1665 was that the Great Fire the following year destroyed ” the Eggs or Seeds, of those Poisonous Animals, that were then in the Stagnating Air ” and that the enlargement of the streets, superior sanitation, and the greater public cleanliness were important contributory factors.
Coffee was predicted to protect against more than the plague; the English medical community convinced consumers that coffee possessed all kinds of virtues including curing drunkards and warding off phthisis (pulmonary tuberculosis) and scurvy. However, it was possible that the act of gathering to drink coffee itself was a risky behavior in times of plague. Coffee was so popular that people ignored the advice of the Lord Mayor “who during the epidemic plague of 1664-1665 warned them that the promiscuity in the cafes was a danger to their health.” So, paradoxically, even if drinking coffee had any health benefits, the act of congregating in large public spaces upped the risk of being infected by a person carrying the plague.
Coffee studies from Slate.