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Physicians and coffee in 19th-century Brazil

Reproduction from Les Français peints par eux-mêmes (1840-42 Physicians in Rio prescribed coffee for its nutritional value and to treat feversReproduction from Les Français peints par eux-mêmes (1840-42

An analysis of dissertations defended at the Rio de Janeiro Medical School between 1850 and 1880 indicates that physicians in the latter half of the 19th century prescribed coffee for its purported nutritional value and to treat illnesses such as cholera and fevers, including intermittent fevers caused by malaria (Circumscribere, Volume 17, June 2016). Although the alleged therapeutic effectiveness of the beverage was quite a controversial topic in Europe, doctors in Brazil’s former capital city touted the health benefits of coffee consumption. The physicians’ advocacy, however, was not grounded in chemical research studies of that time. “Their claims were based on hundred-year-old links between diet, health, climatic factors and temperament,” says science historian Cristiana Couto, principal author of the study, who is currently doing postdoctoral research at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (PUC/SP). Coffee was the most advisable treatment for people who had a lymphatic (or phlegmatic) or sanguine temperament. For very excitable individuals, however, it was to be avoided. But over and above an individual’s humors, physicians took into account local geography to defend the beverage. According to the dissertations analyzed, people in tropical areas such as Rio should consume coffee because it would provide nourishment without causing overexcitement, and would facilitate digestion, activate renal secretions and moderate perspiration.