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Tea and its Effects: Medicinal and Moral

Dr. John Coakley Lettsom
Dr. John Coakley Lettsom, founder of the Medical Society of London

The Natural History of the Tea-Tree With Observations on the Medical Qualities of Tea, and Effects of Tea-Drinking was published in 1772 by John Coakley Lettsom (1744–1815), a physician and philanthropist, whose first action on inheriting his family plantation in 1767 was to free all its slaves. Lettsom founded the Medical Society of London in 1773.

The book began with a description of the tea plant and its cultivation and harvesting in China, as well as the preparation of the leaves for use locally and abroad. Dr. Lettsom then turned to the medical uses of tea, lamenting that so little scientific evidence exists for either its beneficent or its malign properties.

After performing various experiments and considering the physical and social consequences of tea-drinking, the doctor concluded that tea should be avoided, because its enervating effects lead to weakness and effeminacy, advice which mostly fell on deaf ears.

G.G. Sigmond quotes Dr. Lettsom in the 1839 publication Tea; Its Effects, Medicinal and Moral. This author writes about anecdotal accounts concerning the effects of the aroma issuing from tea, specifically the following observations found in Dr. Lettsom’s work:

“An eminent tea-broker, after having examined in one day upwards of one hundred chests of tea, only by smelling at them forcibly, in order to distinguish their respective qualities, was the next day seized with giddiness, headache, universal spasms, and loss of speech and memory. By proper assistance the symptom abated, but he did not recover; for though his speech returned, and his memory in some degree, yet he continued, with unequal steps, gradually losing strength, till a paralysis ensued, then a more general one, and at length he died. Whether this was owing to the effluvia of the tea may, perhaps, be doubted. Future accidents may possibly confirm the suspicion to be just or otherwise.”

Sigmond goes on to quote Dr. Lettsom as the London doctor relates, “An assistant to a tea­broker had frequently, for some weeks, complained of pain and giddiness of his head, after examining and mixing different kinds of tea. The giddiness was sometimes so considerable, as to I render it necessary for a person to attend him, in order to prevent any injury he might suffer from falling, or other accident. He was bled in the arm freely, but without permanent relief; his complaint re­turned as soon as he was exposed to his usual employment.

“At length the patient was advised to be electrified, and the shocks were directed through his head. The next day his pain was diminished, but the day after closed the tragical scene. I saw him a few hours before he died; he was insensible; the use of his limbs almost lost, and he sunk very suddenly into a fatal apoplexy. Whether the effluvia of the tea, or electricity, was the cause of this event, is doubtful. In either view, the case is worthy of attention.”


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