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Tea; Its Medicinal and Moral Effects

by George Gabriel Sigmond, M.D. F.S.A. F.L.S.  Professor of Materia Medica To The Royal Medico-Botanical Society

Published in London: Printed for Longman, Orme, Brown, Green & Longmans   1839



Opening Paragraph

Man is so surrounded by objects calculated to arrest his attention, and to excite either his admiration or his curiosity, that he often overlooks the humble friend that ministers to his habitual comfort; and the familiarity he holds with it almost renders him incapable of appreciating its value. Amongst the endless variety of the vegetable productions which the bounteous hand of Nature has given to his use is that simple shrub, whose leaf supplies an agreeable beverage for his daily nourishment or for his solace ; but little does he estimate its real importance: he scarcely knows how materially it influences his moral, his physical, and his social condition : — individually and nationally we are deeply indebted to the tea-p


George Gabriel Sigmond

George Gabriel Sigmond, may have been primarily known as an Operative Dentist with a practice so successful that most of his patients were among the English nobility, including the Prince of Wales. He is credited with many inventions and publications on dental hygiene.

Dr. Sigmond, Hereditary Posner of Posnania, lost his life and his property in resisting the partition of his native country, Poland, by the sovereigns of the North.



It has long been the custom of the Royal Medico-Botanical Society to invite one of its Professors to deliver an Introductory Address at the opening of each session. The task, this year, devolved upon me. The recent discovery in British India of the Tea Plant, which reflects so much credit upon botanic science, appeared to me deserving the deepest attention; the more so, because it had seemed to escape the notice of scientific men in England, whilst the Continental botanists —amongst them Auguste De Candolle, “the distinguished son of a distinguished father” — had considered it a subject of the highest importance.

The paper I read met with the kindest reception; and a note was recorded upon the minutes, which called upon me to make public the information I had collected. I found, that were I to print my observations in the form in which they were delivered, they would not be acceptable to the public generally, for they were couched in the language usually employed in science, and they abounded in technical terms. I therefore resolved to give, in a popular form, that which would most probably be required by the general reader, — to condense it in a small volume, and to reserve for the Transactions of the Society those details which bear more immediately a scientific character.

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Man is so surrounded by objects calculated to arrest his attention, and to excite either his admiration or his curiosity, that he often overlooks the humble friend that ministers to his habitual comfort; and the familiarity he holds with it almost renders him incapable of appreciating its value. Amongst the endless variety of the vegetable productions which the bounteous hand of Nature has given to his use is that simple shrub, whose leaf supplies an agreeable beverage for his daily nourishment or for his solace; but little does he estimate its real importance: he scarcely knows how materially it influences his moral, his physical, and his social condition individually and nationally we are deeply indebted to the tea-plant.

There may be many vegetables, such as wheat, or barley, the potato, or the vine, from which more immediate sustenance may be derived, or they may, during their cultivation, give employment to large masses of people, but do they call into action the energies of nations, or do they give rise to the exertion of so much intellectual power?  Every circumstance connected with the growth, the cultivation, the preparation, and the exportation from its native soil, of the tea-leaf must awaken the most lively curiosity.

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The commerce which it creates is of the most exclusive character: it is the source of occupation of the people of two distant nations, strikingly distinguished from each other by their customs, their prejudices, their laws, and their religion. It stimulates the one to agricultural industry, the other to navigation and to manufactures. It compels them to an intercourse which, from the dissimilarity of their tastes, their feelings, and their opinions, they would not otherwise have tolerated. If, too, it is the cause of the distribution of riches amongst individuals, it likewise affords, by the taxes that are raised from it, large revenues to the respective governments, and enables them either to support the burden of expensive wars, or to maintain their dignity abroad and their tranquility at home.

A curious, and not an uninstructive, work might be written upon the singular benefits which have accrued to this country from the preference we have given to the beverage obtained from the tea-plant, above all those that might be derived from the rich treasures of the vegetable kingdom. It would prove that our national importance has been intimately connected with it, and that much of our present greatness, and even the happiness of our social system, springs from this unsuspected source. It would show us that our mighty empire in the East, that our maritime superiority, and that our progressive advancement in the arts and the sciences have materially depended upon it.

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Great, indeed, are the blessings which have been diffused amongst immense masses of mankind by the cultivation of a shrub, whose delicate leaf, passing through a variety of hands, forms an incentive to industry, contributes to health, to national riches, and to domestic happiness. The social tea-table is like the fireside of our country, a national delight and, if it be the scene of domestic converse and of agreeable relaxation, it should likewise bid us re- member that everything connected with the growth and preparation of this favourite herb should awaken a higher feeling that of admiration, love, and gratitude to Him “who saw everything that he had made, and behold it was very good.”

At the present moment, every circumstance which relates to the tea-plant carries with it a deeper interest. A discovery has been made of no less importance than that the hand of Nature has planted the shrub within the bounds of  the wide dominion of Great Britain: a discovery which must materially influence the destinies of nations; it must change the employment of a vast number of individuals; it must divert the tide of commerce, and awaken to agricultural industry the dormant energies of a mighty country, whose wellbeing must be the great aim of a paternal government. In a scientific as well as in a commercial point of view, the value of the inquiries that must follow upon this important discovery can scarcely be yet estimated.

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A close investigation, and a diligent research must elicit many facts relating to the produce of considerable regions of the East, in which, doubtless, exist abundant materials, both known and unknown, for the uses of man they may diffuse still greater blessings over the human race than those that are now enjoyed. The resources of a magnificent empire are yet to be developed. India has, within her bosom, the richest vegetable and mineral treasures, which are to be given to the rest of the world, to unite together in closer bonds of harmony two great nations, the one capable, by the energies of her people, of governing; the other, by her climate, evidently destined to be the not unwilling vassal of foreigners; for such has been her lot from the earliest records of mankind; and to possess her wealthy domain has been, and will be, the ambition of the conquerors of the world.

Another great inducement to examine this interesting subject arises out of the prevailing disposition which now exists to substitute the infusion of the tea-leaf for the fermented and distilled liquors which have been, from the earliest records we possess, both sacred and profane, the accustomed drink of all the nations of the earth. It is a most remarkable event in the annals of man, that there should be a systematic organisation of large bodies under the name of Temperance Societies, having the strength of moral union, and guided by the opinions of many reflecting persons, who have pledged themselves to abandon all fermented liquids, and to confine themselves to tea. By such an organisation alone can these principles be carried into action; for the custom of a country bears with it such a despotic sway that it is almost next to an impossibility to eradicate it, even when bordering upon the absurd or mischievous.


Public opinion only can act upon it; and the proselytes daily made seem to prove that this mighty engine is now most actively at work. That dram-drinking is the pernicious source of poverty and sorrow there can be no doubt; but the question may be fairly asked, and duly considered, whether the glass of generous wine, or strengthening beer, is to be totally abandoned, without an examination of the circumstances which may render a moderate enjoyment either prudent or necessary? I must man rush from one extreme to the other? Do not temperature, climate, age, demand some investigation before the denunciation of all fermented liquors be countenanced; and will not even the lover of tea acknowledge his susceptibility of the pleasure and of the utility of his favourite beverage to be heightened by a moderate indulgence in Nature’s other gifts? Does not our knowledge of the condition of the inhabitants of other countries teach us, that the same fluid, which only causes a slight acceleration of the circulation of the blood of the Scotchman or of the Swede, would drive an Italian or a Spaniard mad?


A German, says Montesquieu, drinks through custom, founded upon constitutional necessity; a Spaniard drinks from choice, or out of the mere wantonness of luxury. An amiable enthusiast, the excellent Archdeacon of Bombay, has written a quaint little volume, entitled, “Charges against custom and public opinion, for the following high crimes and misdemeanors: for having stolen away the senses of mankind, and on sundry occasions driven the world mad ; for their outrageous appetite in having eaten up the understanding and the conscience; and for having feloniously turned the heart to stone.” He exclaims, “Bacchus, astride of the spirit cask, is the very evil genius of desolation and wretchedness, poverty, disease, and crime; and to have anything to do with his horrid cask, to buy any of it, or to sell any of it, or in any way to lend the respectability of our name in the consumption of it, is downright insanity.”

The moralist and the philosopher may be led to acquiesce in the leading doctrines which these societies have laid down, and they may hail with satisfaction the dawn of a new and excellent principle, which may serve to counterbalance the fearful calamities inflicted upon the community by the debasing influence of habitual intoxication. They may naturally applaud the labours of those who are inculcating opinions which promise to substitute domestic tranquillity for the fierce brawlings of the ale house; the sober and steady habits which lead to virtue for the reckless dissipation which terminates in vice, in infamy, and in disease. It is, however, for the physician to give the energies of his mind to examine whether the health of the community will suffer by the sudden change of long-established habits, whether the projiosed reform carry with it no injurious effects upon the constitution of the inhabitants of the country.


Having weighed well all the arguments which the advocates of the new system urge, and comparing them with facts already established, it is his duty to place his own opinion before the public, who, guided by that greatest blessing of intellect, common sense, will either be led by him, or will follow the dictates of their own judgment. With such excitements to examine into the nature and artificial preparations of Tea, it will not be considered an intrusion upon the time and the occupation of the intellectual part of the community, if there be placed before them a brief detail of the most important facts that have been from time to time made known; and if there be taken a condensed view of all the bearings of a subject which, if judiciously inquired into, may fairly blend amusement, instruction, and utility.
 Alike, the historical, the botanical, and the medical questions that are involved demand a knowledge of these varied branches of science; but it is not necessary that minutiae should be entered into in a volume which is destined for popular inquirers; more particularly as these have been discussed before by the learned in other shapes, and have been fairly examined; that, however, which is necessary to be known may be given in the simplest language and unencumbered by technical terms.

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