Science Vault: Coffee As Treatment For the Plague

i-02e774eb3bf1631f9218a678a8e0cd4b-plague front.jpg [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.

(Continued below the fold....)

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.

i-38349d8b28af513989af08f9f7f600f9-coffee poster.bmp 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.


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i believe this to be true, i drink coffee and have never had the plague so logically it makes sense

I clicked on the coffee poster, and see that you study hair cell regeneration in the cochlea. This is of interest to me as my son is deaf and wear 2 cochlear implants to hear. Of course I have heard about this, and have always wondered if anything would happen in his lifetime. I hope your research continues to go well!

By Laura Richards (not verified) on 09 Sep 2009 #permalink

I have a related question:
I have recently been approached by my brother to help investigate the fairly recently developed product called "Coffeeberry", because it is being used in a new antioxidant fruit drink product called "SoZo". Coffeeberry comes to the industry as an extract of the coffee fruit that surrounds coffee beans.

Supposedly, it is so fragile that it is normally only eaten as a fresh fruit since it breaks down within 24 hours of only the pickers had been eating it. Their claim is that the fruit itself has 625 times the antioxidant power of blueberries, 2,030 X the power of grapes, etc. See the source for the extract at where those incorporating it into things like face creams, antioxidant beverages and other products are getting it.

I am curious as to whether you have heard of this and if you know whether it may be valuable, bullshit, or somewhere in between. I realize of course that whether antioxidant supplements are of any real benefit in the long run is still being studied.

Thanks for considering such a wordy question,


I don't want to help

My experience with coffee drinking is that coffee puts me to sleep rather than keeps me awake. It also makes me perspire rather intense. I don't drink it because of health benefits but rather because it calms me more than any other drink. I know how can i say that when I'm sweating and getting sleepy, but it dos overall. I drink relatively 4 to 5 cups a day and I really enjoy it. Your post on coffee here is convincing to me why people tend to drink it in the past.

Caffeine also seems to help alleviate certain kinds of headaches. On the flip side caffeine withdrawals can cause them. Ahh, nature in perfect balance. ;)

Clearly coffee does prevent plague; after all I am fanatical about a high-quality cup of coffee and I have yet to suffer from plague (or vapors or dropsy or any other of those dread diseases of ages past). Do you think if I drank more coffee I'd lose the extra weight and eliminate my other medical problems?

What about the role of, say, boiling some appreciable fraction of one's daily fluid intake in the 1700s? Or does the diuretic effect and subsequent thirst counter this hypothesis?

"What about the role of, say, boiling some appreciable fraction of one's daily fluid intake in the 1700s"

The plague was carried by rats. I guess you could boil those...

"The plague was carried by rats. I guess you could boil those..."
Dark or medium roast?

Ewww. I just got a picture of going into Starbucks and picking between the Sprague-Dawley Decaf or the Norweigan Brown Brew.

Drugmonkey -

Indeed, the diuretic effect does counter it. Coffee, much as I love her, dehydrates.

Steve E -

Ultra-dark roast, ala Trader Joe's...

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The diuretic effect of coffee is apparently a myth. See, for example, this article.

I read somewhere that the diuretic effect was observed in non coffee-drinking subjects. Later research showed no such effect in regular coffee drinkers. I can't find the reference now, but that's consistent with article I cited.

The notion that cofee is a nett fluid loss also goes against simple experience. I rarely drink water, but lots of coffee. Since I strongly doubt that my food intake supplies my daily fluid needs, and since I am not reduced to dry powder by now, it seems logical to me that my coffee intake represents a nett fluid gain.

By Pieter Nagel (not verified) on 15 Aug 2007 #permalink

Love the sci vault series. I won't harsh anyone's buzz by pointing out all the nasty things about coffee; well, caffeine, really.

I will point out that Pieter is correct and will add that caffeine does not effect your temperature regulation either as is sometimes stated.

Pieter and Angrytoxicologist -

Interesting, this warrants more investigation then. I was told coffee is diuretic by the doctor I grew up with and several others. I've always assumed they were right, because when I drink a lot of coffee, without also drinking a lot of water, my urine is generally fairly dark yellow - after suffering a bout of kidney stones, I am extremely wary of that. If you've never had them, trust me, it's a good thing to be wary of.


Wouldn't darker yellow urine indicate the opposite of a diuretic effect? Darker urine is presumably more concentrated, which suggest less water went into making the urine, which implies more water is retained in the body.

(Unless, of course, caffeine is metabolized into very yellow compounds).

It sounds as if it is the extra water you drink on top of the coffee, that is actually diuretic. Which I guess is actually a good thing for you: urinating more, and more dilutely, should reduce the risk of kidney stones.

By Pieter Nagel (not verified) on 16 Aug 2007 #permalink

Pieter -

It was explained to me, by the hospital staff, that darker urine is a sign of dehydration and something to watch out for, lest I end up with more stones. Coffee just tends to make me urinate more than similar volumes of water alone. Which I understood to be a diuretic effect. I also have a naturally smaller prostate, which is part of the problem, they said at the hospital that that is probably why I managed to end up with kidney stones at nineteen.

Gods I feel like an old person, with no shame at talking about rather personal health issues. Sorry if this was too much information for anybody.

fun to see that both coca cola and coffee were sold as medicine first. maybe it was the same for tea. Sounds like only alcohol based beverage did not need any excuse to be drunk at first.

I was wondering about the great poster showed here. (you can sleep when you are dead). Would you have a bigger version of it ?


Bah. If coffee doesn't cure it, it's fatal anyway. Just get on with it and die so I can drink your coffee.

(OK, that may sound a little harsh, but it's only because I haven't had mine yet. See? Coffee even cures a sour mood. What more could you ask?)


Mmm. Coffee. It usually makes my asthma subdued a bit.

By Samantha Vimes (not verified) on 20 Aug 2007 #permalink

The ":" cancer link of yours alluded to the stimulation of one's plumbing as a possible source of the benefit, though in this case the effect mostly appears for women. Maybe all that Japanese beer consumption by the guys nullifies coffee's benefit here?

I can testify that since becoming a 'regular' coffee consumer in the last few years that this practice has had a positive effect on my visits to the porcelain throne. And my friends all state that I am no longer "anal retentive" to boot. 8^)

And to be thorough, and retentively focused on this aspect, I should mention the controversial (nowadays) "coffee enema" for its claim to cleanse the liver and gall bladder, was once held in high regard within the medical community. Possibly calling for your further investigation as a retrospectaclulative(?) topic.

Hey, and speaking of 'consumptive' activities, good luck with the phTHESIS thing.

No, no, people. It's PLAQUE not PLAGUE. Sure your teeth will that that nice tanned color, but no more cavities!


In years prior, I made only very occasional use of caffeine, so was very sensitive to its neurological effects. I found it induced a mild hallucination that extended from sensory on up to judgmental levels of consciousness. This effect of this hallucination can be observed readily in other users as an impatience with nuance. In oneself, it is most easily discerned visually in that corners seem sharper, and blank walls more uniform in texture.

I don't know about plague resistance, but it might lead users to be impatient with vague, er, nuanced suggestions on how to avoid it.

By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 09 Oct 2007 #permalink

Stanley Segall, a professor of food science at Drexel University in Philadelphia, identified at least 400 different antioxidants present in fresh coffee. Among them are aldehydes and ketones that are believed to affect free radicals, cancer cells, and cells linked to aging. In August of 2008, MSNBC, quoting an Associated Press article, reported that coffee provides more healthful antioxidants than any other food or beverage in today's American diet. In June of 2006, ABC News reporter John McKenzie reported that daily cups of coffee have been linked to a reduced risk of Parkinson's Disease, liver cancer, gallstones, and type-2 diabetes, and that research suggests that the more you drink, the greater the benefits.
It must be noted that exactly how coffee consumption creates these effects isn't fully understood. It is a complex brew, including chlorogenic acid, quinides, magnesium and other compounds. Decaf has been shown to be statistically as effective in disease prevention, so it isn't the buzz factor. The most important factor appears to be freshness, as coffee's antioxidant affect diminishes fairly rapidly after brewing.

By Peter Fremming (not verified) on 25 Mar 2008 #permalink

Hi Shelley! In search of coffee images while preparing for a seminar I will give at Yale University next week on plague and percolation, I came upon this page and my jaw dropped at the irony of it.

Also it was a few short weeks ago that I was doing field work in a plague focus in Kazakhstan and after having gone great lengths to get one of those coffee machines you can put on a stove and some decent coffee in Almaty, we drank coffee every morning! :) Glad to hear it is a prophylactic... we didn't get plague either! ;)

And yes, plague remains a serious modern public health problem especially for countries in Africa (where most reported cases are now coming from) and central Asia (burdened with labour-intensive surveillance programmes that have been running since the end of World War II).

If curious... see Science 304, 736-8(2004).



By Stephen Davis (not verified) on 10 Jun 2008 #permalink