University of Cambridge > > Cabinet of Natural History > Is it one's cup of tea? Early-modern experimentation on tea as materia medica

Is it one's cup of tea? Early-modern experimentation on tea as materia medica

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From Antiquity onwards Europeans incorporated exotic, plant-derived materia medica into their pharmacopeia. The so-called era of exploration gave this process an enormous boost, making available a variety of new plants from the New World and Asia. Some of these enjoyed parallel existences both as medicines and as foods or beverages. They included not only spices, but also most prominently, plants with stimulant properties such as tea, coffee, chocolate, tobacco and ginseng. These novelties lent themselves to investigation using the experimental methods being propounded by the Royal Society and like-minded Continental savants.

The popularity of this approach was such that by the late 17th century, it was no longer sufficient for novel plants simply to be acclaimed by experts as materia medica based on traditions from the place of origin, travellers’ accounts or other untested testimonials. The experts themselves – usually physicians – demanded proofs of efficacy using the experimental method and their writings primed an ever-larger and more well-informed reading public to follow suit. In 1730, for example, the physician Thomas Short advertised his tea experiments to readers as ‘easy, and practicable by every curious Person on any Plant, without Experience, much Apparatus, Loss of Time, Danger to any Animal, or Acquaintance with the chymical Jargon of Words…’. In my talk I survey the surprisingly varied experimental history of tea over approximately one hundred years, from the late 17th century to the third quarter of the 18th century.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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