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How Coffee Shaped 17th Century Science

How Coffee Shaped 17th Century Science

Science has done a lot recently to help coffee and its reputation; most studies published today agree that coffee is a healthful drink. “Good looking out, Science,” we all say, but it turns out, Science is just returning a centuries-old favor. A new article on Smithsonian.com describes how, along with chocolate and tea, coffee “overturned a 1,500-year-old medical mindset.”

According to the article, medical science up to the 17th century relied upon concepts from Ancient Greece, including the idea of the humors:

Writers including Hippocrates and Galen believed the human body was composed of four humors, or fluids: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. The key to this pseudo-medical system was balance. Every individual, the thinking went, had a unique humoral composition—and if their body fell out of equilibrium, illnesses befell them.

According to ancient medicine, we’re all just gross skin sacs trying to stave of sickness by keeping our unique goo blend from leaking everywhere, which isn’t too far off from one current theory of human composition. If your humors got out of whack, a doctor would prescribe you certain foods to help bring you back to equilibrium—cold foods for a fever, “hot and dry” foods like peppers and wine for indigestion, etc.

During the mid-16th century, coffee, chocolate, and tea arrived in Europe from North Africa, South America, and China, respectively, and exploded in popularity. But these foreign beverages (chocolate was predominately a beverage at the time) posed a problem for the humoral system, namely how to categorize them for medical use. As University of the Pacific professor of history Ken Albala states on coffee:

Some physicians viewed the drink as having a heating effect. Others claimed coffee cooled the body by drying up certain fluids (an early acknowledgement of coffee as a diuretic). All three drinks… were astringent, but if mixed with sugar, their flavor was richer and more pleasant. Were they medicinal in all their forms, or only some? The answer depended largely upon the physician.

This trouble categorizing coffee, tea, and chocolate “explode[d] the old system from the inside,” according to Mary Lindemann, a professor of history at the University of Miami. The article states that though it didn’t fully die until the 19th century, this was the beginning of the erosion of humoral theory.

And it’s all thanks to coffee, tea, and chocolate. You’re welcome, Science.

Zac Cadwalader is the news editor at Sprudge Media Network.

*top image via the U.S. National Library of Medicine


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