Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The divine leaf: physick and the cause for physick

Lynn Veach Sadler
Burlington, NC, United States


The photograph is of John White’s 1585 watercolor of a Secotan mother and child now in the British Library.

Columbus is believed to have rebuked his crew for sharing the Indians’ “drinking” of the smoke of tobacco through toboca/tobaga pipes and chewing its dried leaves. He was among the first to discover its addictiveness. The Whites in his wake also smoked the calumet and received, legend claims, knowledge from The Indian Maiden who stepped out of the smoke. The first tobacco grew where she sat. The Indian village Secota on the bank of the Pamlico River, in what is now Beaufort County, North Carolina, had tobacco gardens.

In 1559, the French ambassador to Portugal, Jean Nicot, published a pamphlet on Nicotinia/Nicotiana as physick for pox, megrims, and plague. Its ashes whitened teeth; its smoke overcame melancholy and enhanced memory. Nicot also introduced snuff to the French Court.

Sir Walter Raleigh, another great patron of tobacco, had Queen Elizabeth try it and is credited with introducing the art of fuming. Soon, smoking moved beyond alehouses, where patrons could choose churchwarden pipes, to St. Paul’s Cathedral during the liturgy. Catherine de Medici loved tobacco. Malta’s Father Superior had his monks smoke it. Johann Sebastian Bach composed “I Smoke My Pipe and Worship God.” Turks used it as an aphrodisiac.

Early detractors, on the other hand, cited the “Indian vice” as belonging to the nightshade family and as offensive to God, Pope, and Koran. Hindustan’s Mogul Emperor had the lips of smokers split; a Sultan had pipes driven through their noses. The Russian Tsar sent users to Siberia. Paris’s leading medical school said (by the 17th century’s end) that it shortened lives. King James I of England “counterblasted” it (1604). In 1761 came its first connection with cancer. Dr. William B. Shockley (1801-1876) wrote two poems about it and condemned it as a weed “That hurts the body and the mind.” [Ross Lockridge, Jr., drew on Shockley for John Shawnessy in Raintree County (1948).]

Writers often wrote about tobacco, notably in the 18th century, but with differing views. Tobias Hume set the anonymous poem “Tobacco Is Like Love” to music (1605). For Laurence Sterne (Yorick’s meditations . . . , 1760), tobacco alleviates cares and conspires with port/porter to suggest ideas and enlarge the soul. John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor (1960) used an adapted 18th-century style and drew on English-born Ebenezer Cooke’s poem, “The Sotweed Factor, or A Voyage to Maryland, A Satyr” (1708) for the title. Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road (1932) is about Georgia sharecroppers.

Spain came to hold the tobacco monopoly. John Rolfe, of Virginia, knew that British gentry, his target, would not purchase the Indians’ “Apooke” (Nicotiana Rustica). His wife Matoaka (Pocahontas, Rebecca) spied for him and enabled Rolfe to buy, in secret, seeds from the Spanish Colonies. He named his version “Orinoco” and grew it at Bermuda Hundred (a link with Shakespeare’s The Tempest). It evolved into the Virginia Colony’s cash crop, the export of the New World, and was planted in some Jamestown streets. Farmers had to be forced to grow food instead of tobacco. To work it, Virginians bought slaves. Spouses from England cost 120 pounds of “Cured leaf.”

The “soured” soil was left fallow. In search of new land, Virginians moved into northeastern North Carolina, along the Chowan River and Albemarle Sound, the “Tobacco Coast,”1 and eventually inland.

Matthew Miksch set up a tobacco shop in Old Salem, North Carolina, about 1773, and produced his wares in a log cabin out back. They are the two oldest surviving structures in this country where tobacco products were made and sold. He twisted leaves into rolls for his customers.

North Carolina lacked good harbors and sent tobacco by small boats to Virginia, but that state did not want competition or “inferior” tobacco from “Rogues’ Harbor.”2 Other outsiders came to the rescue by sending light boats to farmers’ docks, loading the tobacco, and sailing home to re-load in ocean-going ships.

John Ruffin Green had a little two-story tobacco granulating facility in Durham’s Station, mainly for students at the University of North Carolina. Rebs and Yankees foraged while Sherman and Johnston negotiated surrender terms at Bennett Place. Those joint raiders left Green with little but made his fortune. After the Civil War, they wrote back from all over to get his rare tobacco.3 That was the beginning of Bull Durham, named for the bull’s head on Coleman Mustard, manufactured in Durham, England. But “bull” could not be used in public, and euphemisms (e.g., “Cow-Brute,” “Seed-Ox Durham”) had to be found. Bull Durham became the largest tobacco factory in the world, and Green secured endorsements from Alfred Lord Tennyson and Thomas Carlyle. Like most manufacturers, however, he ignored cigarettes.

Such names as “Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bow Wow,” “World for a Dime,” “Uncle Sam,” “Christian’s Comfort,” “Gay Bloomers,” and “Cyclone” triggered the advertising industry. The best names came from RJR (Richard Joshua Reynolds). Approximately a hundred were trademarked by 1886, including “Live Indian,” “Zeb Vance,” “Dixie’s Delight,” “Purity,” and the chewing tobacco “City Talk.” Tobacco also initiated promotions. Allen & Ginter’s inserting lithographed cardboard to stiffen cigarette packages evoked collector sets, e.g., flags, “Perilous Occupations,” rare animals, Indian Chiefs, baseball players.

The cigar, defined by Horace Greeley as “a fire at one end and a fool at the other,” came to America after the war with Mexico. “Stogies” were named for the Conestoga wagons that took them west.

Cigaretting remained a cottage industry until James Buchanan (“Buck”) Duke4 worked with the James Albert Bonsack family to perfect the rolling machine rejected by Allen & Ginter after offering a $75,000 prize for it. The principal asset of Buck’s first New York factory was his advertising prowess. The coupons in his boxes were redeemed for miniature college pennants and Oriental rugs, and he gave away clocks and folding chairs. He hired Edward F. Small for “patter” comparable to an auctioneer’s. In turn, Small persuaded Duke to underwrite the statues of Indian and turbaned Turk figures standing at tobacconists’ doors and inscribed with the proprietors’ names and the Duke brands they sold. Duke also toured the “Cross Cuts,” a roller-skating team named for one of his brands. After securing the endorsement of the famous French actress Mme. Rhea, he progressed to picture cards of stage ladies, “Sporting Girls,” and “Rags to Riches” businessmen; gave rebates to dealers; and offered such premiums as floor mops and faux-diamond stickpins; twenty cents of every sales dollar went for promotion.

The famous “Do you have Prince Albert in a can? Well, why don’t you let him out?” referred to an RJR product that used The Grand Ole Opry to promote it.5 The airtight tin keeping tobacco moist was considered genius, as was the Camel brand, a blending of American and Turkish tobaccos. It needed a picture symbolizing the Middle East. Fortuitously, Barnum & Bailey arrived in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, with “Old Joe,” its star Arabian dromedary. An artist sketched its picture adding Egyptian palms and pyramids. By 1921’s “I’d walk a mile for a Camel,” the brand had 50% of the market. Old Joe may still be the most printed animal.

Duke’s answer was Lucky Strike, a name first used for a plug tobacco during California gold and Colorado silver strikes. The blended, “toasted” cigarette was advertised with some of the first skywriting but did not catch Camel until radio’s “Hit Parade” and the slogan “Lucky Strike means fine tobacco,” shortened (1944) to “L.S.M.F.T.” Amelia Earhart endorsed it, though she was not a smoker and was merely obliging her crew. She said that Lucky Strikes flew with her on Friendship, were smoked continuously across the Atlantic, and lessened the strain of everyone in her plane. Emily Post advised hostesses to pass out cigarettes and advertised for Old Gold.

Cigarette paper came from France. When WWII closed that route, it started being made of flax-straw fiber from North Carolina’s Pisgah Forrest.6

The song “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette” was amazingly popular, as was the “Phillip Morris Boy.” America’s was a real bellhop in the New Yorker Hotel, Brooklyn’s Johnny Roventini. He was under four feet with a perfect B-flat vocally. He “called” on such radio shows of the thirties and forties as “Break the Bank,” “This Is Your Life,” and “The Rudee Vallee Show.”

The real Philip Morris was a London Bond Street tobacconist who offered fine Havana “seegars” and “Virginia pipe tobacco” (actually from North Carolina). His cork tipping kept cigarettes from sticking to lips. His brands included “Oxford” and “Cambridge Blues” for the college boys. The English were not much for cigarettes, however, until after the Crimean War, in which they found them smoked by their French and Turkish allies and by captured Russian officers.

Truth in advertising cannot be claimed, given the brand names capitalizing on Egypt, which lacked tobacco, but the slang “Coffin Nails” (cigarettes) seems apt today. Along its journey, tobacco largely ceased as physick and became the cause for physick. World No Tobacco Day, established by the World Health Organization (1987), is held annually (May 31). While studies describe its destruction of DNA, admirers denounce the “conspiracy” against it.7 Scientists are working on an HIV drug from a tobacco-leaf virus.



  1. See Arthur Pierce Middleton, Tobacco Coast: A Maritime History of Chesapeake Bay in the Colonial Era (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press and The Maryland State Archives, 1953, 1984).
  2. Jerome E. Brooks, Green Leaf and Gold: Tobacco in North Carolina (NC Division of Archives and History, 2nd ed. 1997, p. 8. See also Brooks, The Mighty Leaf: Tobacco Through the Centuries (Boston: Little, Brown and Co.), 1952.
  3. See Paul D. H. Quigley, “Tobacco’s Civil War: Images of the Sectional Conflict on Tobacco Package Labels,” Southern Cultures (Summer 2006), “The Tobacco Issue,” 53-57.
  4. Tobacco families, including the Dukes and McElwees, could be rivals, as in Foster Fitz-Simons 1949 novel Bright Leaf and its 1950 movie adaptation. Descendent Ross McElwee was a detractor of the Dukes and tobacco in his 2003 documentary Bright Leaves.
  5. See Louis M. Kyriakoudes, “Not Forgotten: The Grand Ole Opry and Big Tobacco Radio Scripts from the Files of the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, 1948-1959.” Southern Cultures (Summer 2006), “The Tobacco Issue,” 76-89.
  6. Brooks, p. 34.
  7. See http://www.smokershistory.com.



LYNN VEACH SADLER, PhD, is a former college president has published 5 books and 72 articles and has edited 22 books/proceedings and 3 national journals and publishes 2 newspaper columns.  In creative writing, she has 11 poetry chapbooks and 4 full-length collections, 125+ short stories, 4 novels, a novella, 3 short story collections, a nonfiction collection (in press), and 41 plays.  As North Carolina’s Central Region Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet 2013-2015, she mentored student and adult poets.  She works as a writer and an editor.  She and her husband have voyaged around the world five times, with Lynn writing all the way.


Spring 2017  |  Sections  |  History Essays

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