“A slow poison”: Dr. Thomas Young and His Essay on Tea

by Yiyun Huang, Andrew W. Mellon Fellow, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Dr. Thomas Young (1731-1777) was an important member of the Sons of Liberty and a family physician of John Adams. Although he did not participate in the destruction of tea on December 16, 1773, he played a crucial role in rallying against the consumption of tea. Young wrote an essay highlighting the medicinal risks of drinking tea which appeared in the Boston Evening Post in October, 1773. He aimed to make the case that tea was really a slow poison. One of his methods was to present some extraordinary cases: a farmer’s wife from his hometown “lost the use of her limbs” because of continuously drinking strong tea for four years.[1] But there is something else from this essay that is really fascinating.

Dr. Young’s essay reveals a variety of conduits through which colonial American intellectuals could learn about exotic botanicals such as tea. First, they could read the works of the Jesuit missionaries and other Europeans who had traveled to East Asia. To prove his argument that tea was a slow poison, Dr. Young wanted to know what the Chinese had to say about tea’s medicinal properties. So, he turned to Jean Baptiste Du Halde’s The General History of China (Description de la Chine) and Engelbert Kaempfer’s Amœnitates Exoticæ (Exotic Pleasures) for answers. The MHS has a printed copy of the third edition of The General History of China, which included detailed descriptions of the botanical and medicinal properties of tea. Du Halde based these descriptions on the French missionaries’ translation of Chinese materia medica texts and their observations of the cultivation and production of tea in Fujian province.[2]

Engelbert Kaempfer’s work was another source of information for Dr. Young to learn about tea. Kaempfer (1651-1716) did not set foot in China but had stayed in Batavia and Nagasaki as a physician for the Dutch East India Company in the late 17th century. He provided a lengthy description of tea’s cultivation, preparation, preservation, and medicinal effects in Amœnitates.[3] He took advantage of the knowledge compiled by his predecessors, Chinese expat physicians in Japan, and texts exported to the port of Nagasaki by Chinese merchants. Both Du Halde and Kaempfer’s works provided a balanced description of tea’s health benefits and risks. However, Dr. Young focused on what the two authors said about tea’s medicinal vices, i.e. that it contained corrosive qualities.

The works of the armchair British and continental European physicians also provided ammunition for Dr. Young in denouncing tea. He cited the works of Thomas Short (1690-1772) and Samuel Auguste Tissot (1728-1797) to argue that long-time consumption of tea had negative impact on the health of the entire European population. Tissot’s Advice to the people in general, with regard to their health (1771) is in the MHS collections. Both Short and Tissot did acknowledge that tea could render some people ill, but throwing harsh criticism at tea was not their original intention. Instead, they were interested in determining the medicinal properties of tea by situating it within the Galenic framework and conducting new experiments. Short, for example, wanted to use a series of chemical experiments to determine if tea really had the health benefits as claimed by many. He concluded that green tea could cure such bodily disorders as lethargy and headache as it diluted “a thick blood.” He did claim that the Chinese adulterated tea with other ingredients, but these adulterations did not pose serious health risks.[4] Again, Dr. Young ignored Short’s praises of tea but took only the negative side into account.

Dr. Young’s essay was more of a political treatise which aimed to dissuade common people from consuming tea than a scientific study. He took advantage of the global sources available and chose to highlight what these authors said about the negative effects of tea drinking, while ignoring their praises of tea’s health benefits.

[1] Thomas Young, “Messirs Fleets,” Boston Evening Post, October 25, 1773.

[2] Jean Baptiste Du Halde, The General History of China (London: 1734).

[3] Engelbert Kaempfer, Exotic Pleasures: Fascicle III: Curious Scientific and Medical Observations. Trans. and intro. Robert W. Carrubba (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University, 1998), 141-169. For the original see Kaempfer, Amœnitates Exoticæ (Lemgo, 1712), 605-631.

[4] Thomas Short, A Dissertation upon Tea (London: 1730), 43-59.

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