Thursday, November 11, 2010

Tea - the medical benefits

Engelbert Kaemfer, a German doctor,botanist and polymath, who was employed by the Dutch East India Company and lived in Japan in the late seventeenth century, was one of those who were most effective in spreading an understanding of tea to the West. In his great history of Japanese civilisation he described the history, politics, crafts, government and economy with enormous care. At the end of the volumes he included detailed appendices on several important subjects, including tea. Likewise, missionaries, diplomats and others who visited and wrote about China described the wonderful Chinese plant that seemed to cure so many different diseases.

The records of the use of tea suggest that it first arrived at Amsterdam in 1610, in France in the 1630s and in England in 1657. It was 'brewed, kept in a cask, then drawn and warmed up for customers as they asked for it'. Milk was probably not added at this stage. As with many new technologies, in fact, it was at first assimilated into techniques already in use, being treated as a kind of warmed-up beer, still served from a barrel.

In the 1660s it was advertised as That excellent and by all Physicians approved, China drink, called by the Chineans, Tcha, by other Nations Tay or Tee, and was sold at the Sultans Head near the Royal Exchange. The first overview of its medical effects and virtues was given in the tea broadsheet by 'I'homas Garway, published in 1657 to advertise the first public sale of tea in Garway’s coffee house. A list of the medical benefits of tea, similar to those given by Garway, was transcribed from a Chinese source in 1686 by T. Povey, a Member of Parliament.

1. It purifies the Bloud of that which is grosse and heavy.
2. It Vanquisheth heavy Dreames.
3. It Easeth the brain of heavy Damps.
4. Easeth and cureth giddinesse and Paines in the Heade.
5. Prevents the Dropsie.
6. Drieth Moist humours in the Head.
7. Consumes Rawnesse.
8. Opens Obstructions.
9. Cleares the Sight.
10. Clenseth and Purifieth adults humours and a hot Liver.
11. Purifieth defects of the Bladder and Kiddneys.
12. Vanquisheth Superfluous Sleep.
13. Drives away dissines, makes one Nimble and Valient.
14. Encourageth the heart and Drives away feare.
15. Drives away all Paines of the Collick which proceed from Wind.
16. Strengthens the Inward parts and Prevents Consumptions.
17. Strengthens the Memory.
18. Sharpens the Will and Quickens the Understanding.
19. Purgeth Safely the Gaul.
20. Strengthens the use of due benevolence.

As tea began to be introduced into Europe the argument about its virtues and possible dangers increased. In Holland it was recommended by physicians like Johannes van Helmont as a restorative against loss of body fluids. Dr Nikokas Dorx (1593-1674) wrote a widely read eulogy on tea in his Observationes Medicae under the name ‘Nikolas Tulp”.

Nothing is comparable to this plant. Those who use it are for that reason, alone, exempt from all maladies and reach an extreme old age. Not only does it procure great vigour for their bodies, but also it preserves them from gravel and gallstones, headaches, colds, ophthalmia, catarrh, asthma, sluggishness of the stomach and intestinal troubles. It has the additional merit of preventing sleep and facilitating vigils, which makes it a great help to persons desiring to spend their nights writing or meditating."

One of the most extended treatments was by the Dutch physician Cornelis Bontekoe (alias Cornelis Dekker) who published a Tractaat on the excellence of tea, coffee and chocolate in 1679. Bontekoe held green tea of Bohea in such high esteem that in one of his works he seriously recommended the sick to take 50, 60, up to 100 cups without stopping, a feat he had accomplished himself in one morning. He had suffered cruelly from stones, and believed that he had been cured by the copious use he made of the Chinese drink. He defended it strongly against those who said it caused convulsions and epilepsy; on the contrary, he attributed to it all sorts of therapeutic virtues. Bontekoe also recommended drinking two glasses of strong tea before an attack of malaria and a number of glasses afterwards.

A number of British doctors also investigated its properties. Thomas Trotter in his View of the Nervous Temperament (1807) argued that tea, as well as other commodities, like coffee and tobacco, 'had once been used as medicines, but had been reduced to necessities'." Thomas Short in his Dissertation upon Tea of 1730 reported various experiments that showed that when tea was added to blood, it separated the 'blood serum'. It furthermore helped to preserve meat from becoming rotten. He listed the diseases for which it was a remedy, including diseases of the head, thickness of the blood, diseases of the eye, ulcers, gout, the stone, obstructions of the bowels and many others. In 1772 Dr Lettsom wrote a Natural History of the Tea-Tree, with Observations on the Medical Qualities of Tea along the same lines. From the experiments he concluded that 'It is evident from these experiments, that both green and bohea Tea possess an antiseptic and astringent.

Tea spread fairly slowly at first in Britain, largely because of the cost. It was a luxury item. Famously Mrs Pepys drank it, as Pepys recorded in his Diary on 25 September 1660; she took it partly for medicinal reasons as it was thought that it would be good for her cough. When it first reached the London market it was sold for the remarkable price of £3 10s a pound. Then the price dropped to about £2 in nine or ten years, when it became available in every coffee house. Yet it remained a luxury drink throughout the seventeenth century and into the early eighteenth.

The great surge in tea importation and the drop in its cost occurred from the 1730s onwards, soon after the direct clipper trade to China was opened.

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