Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Tobacco: Dr. Monardes’ miracle cure

Howard Fischer
Uppsala, Sweden

“[Tobacco] is an hearb of great affirmation for the excellent vertues that it hath.”1
– Nicolás Monardes, MD (translated by John Frampton, 1577)

“A custome loathsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs…”2
– James I of England, 1604

A Maya priest smoking. Early or mid-19th century rendering of Classic Era Maya artwork from the Temple at Palenque, Mexico. Published in Sander Gilman and Zhou Xun, eds, Smoke: A Global History of Smoking (2004), p. 10. Via Wikimedia. 

Nicolás Monardes (1493–1588) earned his bachelor’s degree in medicine in 1533 from the University of Alcalá de Henares, and his medical doctor’s degree in 1547 from the University College of Santa Maria de Jesus, both in Seville, Spain. He was also a well-known botanist,3,4 and was considered the “foremost authority on New World materia medica.”5 Monardes never set foot in the New World. Rather, he obtained information about the medicinal plants found there by questioning returning merchants, sailors, soldiers, royal officials, and missionaries, and examining what they brought back to Spain.

He described and reported on the uses of such American discoveries as quinine, ginger, rhubarb, tobacco, and hundreds more.6 Tobacco had been cultivated in Mexico as early as 1400 BC.7 There are carved statues showing Mayan gods smoking. Indigenous peoples of the Americas smoked tobacco in religious rituals, sometimes mixed with hallucinogenic plants. It was smoked on social occasions and for medicinal purposes. The Iroquois people of what later became the state of New York used tobacco to calm the pain of dental decay.8

Monardes planted seeds that were brought back from the Americas, and thus had fresh material to use in his experiments. His book on plants of the Americas9 “can fairly be described as one of the seminal books of the sixteenth century.”10 This book, finished in 1574, had sixteen pages devoted to tobacco. Monardes named the genus of the plant Nicotiana in honor of his friend Jean Nicot, the French ambassador to Portugal.11 Dr. Monardes’ enthusiasm about tobacco’s properties was tremendous. He wrote that it was a cure for shortness of breath, headache and stomach ache, joint pains, labor pains, worms, toothache, the common cold, kidney stones, fatigue, lockjaw, and cancer.12 When chewed, tobacco could combat hunger and thirst.13 It has been claimed that Monardes described more than sixty-five conditions that tobacco cured.14 Monardes was translated into Latin, English, Italian, French, Flemish, and German,15,16 and his work was known all over Europe. Because Monardes called tobacco a counter-poison, King Philip II of Spain (1527–1598) had a dog poisoned and then given tobacco. According to Monardes, the dog survived.17

Dr. Juan de Cardenas, a follower of Monardes, summed up Monardes’ and his own thoughts about tobacco: “To seek to tell the virtues and greatness of this holy herb, the ailments which can be cured by it, and have been, the evils from which it has saved thousands would be to go on to infinity…this precious herb is so general a human need not only for the sick but for the healthy.”18 Over time, the “medicinal” uses of tobacco were abandoned in favor of its recreational use.


  1. Nicolás Monardes. Ioyfull newes out of the new-found vvorld, tr. John Frampton.Quoted in “Ioyfull newes out of the new-found vvorld [order],” OpenBook, July 3, 2018. https://openbook.lib.utah.edu/tobacco-free/
  2. “A counterblaste to tobacco.” Wikipedia.
  3. “Nicolás Monardes.” Wikipedia.
  4. Charles Boxer. Two Pioneers of Tropical Medicine: Garcia d’Orta and Nicolás Monardes. Wellcome Historical Medical Library, 1963. Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/b20457248.
  5. William Eamon. “Medicine as a hunt: Searching for the secrets of the New World,” In Charlene Black and Mari-Tere Álvarez, eds, Renaissance Futurities: Science, Art, Invention, Oakland: University of California Press, 2020.
  6. Monardes, Ioyfull newes.
  7. “Tobacco.” Wikipedia.
  8. Thomas Wexler. “Tobacco: From miracle cure to toxin.” YaleGlobal, June 12, 2006.
  9. Nicolás Monardes. Historia Medicinal de las Cosas que se traen de Nuestras Indias Occidentales. Sevilla: Alonso Escrivano, 1574.
  10. Boxer, Two Pioneers.
  11. “Jean Nicot.” Wikipedia.
  12. Gene Borio. “Play it again,” TobaccoControl 9, 2000.
  13. “Holy smoke,” Lapham’s Quarterly Spring 2007. Excerpt from Nicolás Monardes, Joyful News Out of the New Found World, tr. John Frampton, 1577. https://www.laphamsquarterly.org/discovery/holy-smoke.
  14. Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. “This vile custome: A history of tobacco’s medical interpretations.” 2023. https://www.rcpe.ac.uk/heritage/vile-custome-history-tobaccos-medical-interpretations.
  15. Livia Gershon. “How books taught Europeans to smoke.” JSTOR Daily, July 15, 2023. https://daily.jstor.org/how-books-taught-europeans-to-smoke/.
  16. Boxer, Two Pioneers.
  17. “Nicolás Monardes,” Wikipedia.
  18. “Nicolás Monardes,” Wikipedia.

HOWARD FISCHER, M.D., was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan. He has been smoke-free for seventeen years.

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