Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The tomato in medicine and the Bloody Mary

Small piles of tomatoes on a table with a jug on a white tablecloth on a wooden table and a blue background
Tomatoes and a Pewter Tankard on a Table. Oil painting by Paul Gauguin, 1883. art-Gauguin.com. No known restrictions on publication.

The tomato first grew on the slopes of the Andes Mountains in present-day Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, and Peru, where it was neither cultivated nor eaten but perhaps used as a flavoring agent. It was transplanted in the early sixteenth century to southern Europe by the Spanish conquistadors of Hernán Cortés. In Italy, it was first described in 1544 by the herbalist Pietro Andrea Mattioli as mela aurea or “golden apple.” It was at first regarded an ornamental fruit, often shaped like a berry and segmented with grooves on it, suspected of being poisonous because of its resemblance to the deadly nightshade plant, belladonna. In England tomatoes were not grown until 1590. Some early tomatoes introduced in Europe were yellow, hence the Italian name pomodoro (golden apple). According to Mattioli, they were eaten like eggplants, fried in oil with salt and pepper.

The tomato is now consumed worldwide, raw in salads or cooked in too many dishes to count, notably popular in Indian cuisine as tikka masala and in China as scrambled eggs and tomato. In the Middle Ages it was a seasonal food of the aristocracy, of the Medici of Florence, and also of monks. Later it became food for the common people, made available all year round by sun drying, canning, in pastes and juices, in pizzas and pasta, and especially spaghetti. In Britain it replaced some of the earlier constituents of ketchups such as mushrooms, walnuts, and fish. In modern times, genetically modified, aesthetically shaped, and attractively colored tomatoes tend to be sold in preference to the uglier but tastier naturally grown ones. Amateur globetrotting economists have used the price of tomatoes as an index of the real value of the local currency and exchange rate. In America tomatoes are often thought of in relation to Domino’s pizza, Heinz ketchup, Del Monte canned fruits and vegetables, Campbell’s soup, the Big Boy submarine burger, the BLT sandwich, the work of Andy Warhol, and the Bloody Mary.

Botanically, the tomato is classified as a fruit because it contains seeds and grows from the flower of the tomato plant. Nutritionally, however, it is a consumable vegetable. Originally placed by Linnaeus in the genus Solanum, it lodges there with its cousins the tobacco, the chili pepper, the potato, and the eggplant. Tomato is pronounced “tom-ay-to” in the United States and “tom-ah-to” in the English-speaking countries of the former empire that ruled the waves. By common agreement, the plural is “tomatoes” and not “tomatos.”

Neither the Chinese nor medieval Italian doctors thought the tomato was of any particular clinical use, though at some stage it was believed to have aphrodisiac qualities and called in 1553 by the Swiss scientist Konrad Gesner poma amoris or love apple. However, when the tomato began to be eaten as food in northern Europe, some doctors attempted to use it as replacement for calomel—mercurous chloride, commonly used as a purgative. In the United States, a medical tomato mania occurred after 1825 thanks to the efforts of several quacks; numerous tomato pills and extracts became available, as illustrated by the popular jingle “the fruit that cures all your ills” and “should be eaten three times a day.”

The benefits of the tomato were widely promoted by the physicians Thomas Sewall, who lectured on it in Washington, and by John Cook Bennett, who claimed that tomatoes could ease diarrhea, dyspepsia, indigestion, “violent bilious attacks,” and even cholera, as well as promoting it for convalescents from any disease. As a result of these endorsements, hundreds of thousands of people bought “extract of tomato” pills, transforming the tomato into a valued medicine.

Bennett practiced in Ohio after graduating in 1825 and became professor of midwifery and president of the Willoughby Medical College of Lake Erie University. His lectures were devoted to his pet topic, and he became a tomato evangelist, publishing widely and claiming he was endorsed by the “Scotch and French Royal Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons” in Montreal. He helped promote several tomato extract pills sold in pharmacies and even made them popular in the Mormon community by his friendship with its leader Joseph Smith. The tomato pill craze lasted through 1850, at which point Americans were eating enough tomatoes not to bother also taking supplements.

Like other plants, tomatoes are subject to various forms of mildew and blight, tobacco mosaic virus disease, a disease called curly top and another called bacterial wilt, and to several pests such as tomato bugs, stink bugs, cutworms, tomato and tobacco hornworms, tomato russet mite aphids, cabbage loopers, whiteflies, tomato fruit worms, flea beetles, red spider mites, slugs, and Colorado potato beetles, some causing the entire plant to die or its leaves to shrink. These seem to be all pretty much under control so that millions are able to enjoy the fruit as the constituent of the Bloody Mary.

The drink itself was named either after Queen Mary Tudor of England or invented by a popular bar in Paris, or named after the friend of an American entertainer. It was originally made with vodka to please or attract the many Russian emigrants fleeing their country after the Bolshevik Revolution. It was a particular favorite drink of Ernest Hemingway. Often served with olives, celery, and added bitters, it supposedly tastes even better on international flights because the dry air in the cabin brings out its sweet flavor and masks its salty taste. On the ground it may be equally enjoyed for dinner, lunch, or even for breakfast.



GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief


Summer 2022 | Sections | Food

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