T.S. Eliot measured out his life in coffee spoons. Scottish historian and philosopher Sir James Mackintosh claimed that “the powers of a man’s mind are directly proportioned to the quantity of coffee he drinks.” Many other coffee drinkers would probably agree.
In 1803, German physician Samuel Hahnemann claimed that coffee was purely medicinal and nothing more. The founder of homeopathy, Hahnemann drew a careful distinction between ‘food’ and ‘medicine.’ “Medicinal things are substances that do not nourish, but alter the healthy condition of the body,” Hahnemann wrote in On the Effects of Coffee. Medicines taken by a healthy person “deranges the harmonious concordance of our organs, undermines health and shortens life.” For Hahnemann, coffee fell into this category of harmful substances, potentially responsible for all of man’s suffering and ill health. Coffee was the cause of impotence, sterility, rickets, insomnia (pretty true actually), stammering, melancholy, and malicious envy among other conditions.
Hahnemann’s feelings about coffee seem to stem from his personal dislike of its flavor rather than anything scientific, though. “No one ever smoked tobacco for the first time in his life without disgust,” he wrote, and “no healthy person ever drank unsugared black coffee for the first time in his life with gusto – a hint given by nature to shun the first occasion for transgressing the laws of health.” Hahnemann clearly needed to ask for “room” with his order.
Hahnemann certainly wasn’t blind to the benefits of coffee, though, especially in the morning. His description seems to describe several people I know and to explain the Starbucks empire: “In the first moments or quarters of an hour after awaking…everyone who is not living completely in a state of rude nature, has a disagreeable feeling of not thoroughly awakened consciousness, of confusion, of laziness, and want of pliancy in the limbs.” He goes on to explain how coffee “removes this disagreeable situation” as “we suddenly become completely alive” with each sip.
Two decades later, Hahnemann realized that perhaps he’d been too hasty in his condemnation of coffee. He wasn’t ready to fully embrace coffee but maybe it wasn’t the sole cause of man’s fall from health.
Millions of coffee drinkers agree.