These days, doctors warn their patients to stay away from tobacco, but medical researchers have also reported a long history of tobacco use as a medicinal herb, capable of curing everything from to Parkinson ’s disease.

Pre-Columbian America

The tobacco plant is native to the Americas, and cultivation sites for the plant in Mexico date back to 1400-1000 BC. The leaves were dried, then smoked socially or ceremonially. Yet, Christopher Columbus and his crew observed indigenous people also using tobacco in torches to prevent disease and fatigue, in a snuff version to cause loss of consciousness (possibly for surgeries) and as a toothpaste, when a powdered form was mixed with lime or chalk.

16th Century Europe—the Age of Discovery

European explorers brought tobacco seeds back to the “Old World” in 1559 after discovering a multitude of uses for the plant, from headache relief, healing wounds and burns and to fight the common cold. Tobacco quickly grew in popularity, many enthusiasts chewed or snorted tobacco, often believing it was a health tonic that opened one’s pores. Typically, small quantities were smoked in bongs, hookahs and water pipes, not too different from the pipes used today, like the types you’d find at a tobacco shop.

19th Century—Victorian Era

In 1828, medical scientists isolated nicotine in the tobacco plant tincture, and warned that this dangerous alkaloid could cause harm. Doctors continued to use tobacco and its derivatives, using tinctures, poultices and snuff patches to control the dose for the treatment of a wide variety of ailments. Everything from gout, insect bites, constipation, ulcers and malaria could be cured with tobacco.

20th Century

By the 1920s, medical science has moved on from tobacco as a panacea, but could still be found in disinfecting salves used to combat ringworm, athlete’s foot. Doctors found that smoking or injections of nicotine could ease symptoms of several brain and nervous system disorders, such as a Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Tourette’s syndrome. The effect was temporary, and most research indicated that the long-term health risks outweighed the short-term benefits.

Tobacco smoking in the United States continues to decline, from 20% of the adult population in 2005 to 14% in 2018. Yet, people continue enjoying the effects of nicotine in the form of lozenges, gum, e-cigarettes and vapes. Scientists and entrepreneurs will continue to research, refine and explore the human attraction to this unique plant, and maybe someday soon they will discover the truly healthy tobacco.

About the author

Emma Sturgis

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