Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Onions: Soup, medicine, and crocodile tears

Onions. Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1881. Private collection.

What should well-educated persons be expected to know about onions? They have probably eaten them since childhood, or perhaps had to help their mothers in the kitchen and shed crocodile tears even though they did not feel particularly sad. If chemically inclined they might have wondered what ingredient was responsible for their tears. They may have read that the world is divided into two camps, those who love onions and those who hate them.1 Years of eating in pretentious restaurants might have taught them to distinguish good from horridly bad French onion soup. Those prepared to brave the cold January winters of Paris might remember the delight of being served the most delicious French onion soup that ever graced their palate at a cafe on the Rue de Rivoli. But oh, within only a few years the recipe was changed. Sic transit gloria mundi, but then nothing lasts forever.

Linnean taxonomists know that the onion, Allium cepa, is a member of the larger amaryllis family (Amaryllidaceae) that also includes garlic. There are some 500 kinds of onions with different shapes, colors, textures, and tastes. There are red, white, yellow, green, and sweet onions; large, small brown, and skinned “Spanish” onions; and sweet Vidalia or Walla Walla onions. The family also includes Welsh onions, scallions, shallots, leeks, and chives—each with an appropriate Linnean moniker.

Like most other vegetables, onions were cultivated as far back as 5000 BC, originating from central Asia and spreading to all corners of the world. Ancient Egyptians revered the onion and considered its spherical shape and concentric rings symbols of eternal life. Pharaohs had onions placed in their tombs for protection or perhaps to dissipate their ennui. The Jews wandering in the wilderness of Sin fondly remembered eating onions while in bondage in Egypt.1 In ancient Greece, athletes consumed onions to enhance their performance but considered their odor vulgar.1 The Romans used onions to treat everything, from vision problems to sleep disorders. They are believed to have given us the name “onion” as a derivative from “unus,” meaning “one,” and they introduced onions to the people of Britain and added wild onions to their stews.

In medieval Europe, onions were believed to ward off evil spirits and were hung on windowsills for protection from Dracula and friends. Both Louis Pasteur and even more recently Albert Schweitzer appreciated onions for their antibacterial properties.1 By the nineteenth century onions became highly recommended, as in an unsigned entry in the Scientific American, March 27, 1880:

Our own experience and that of others fully endorses the healthful properties of that particular esculent. Lung and liver complaints are certainly benefited, often cured by a free consumption of onions: either cooked or raw. Colds yield to them like magic. Do not be afraid of them… Taken regularly they greatly promote the health of the lungs and the digestive organs. An extract made by boiling down the juice of onions to a syrup and taken as medicine, assists the purpose very well, but fried, roasted, or boiled, onions are better. Onions are very cheap medicine, within everybody’s reach…

These findings were confirmed later in the same journal in another unsigned entry (March 17, 1888) stating that:

For a cold on the chest there is no better specific for most persons than boiled or roasted onions. They may not agree with everyone, that to persons with good digestion they will not only be found to be a most excellent remedy for cough, and the clogging of the bronchial tubes which is usually the cause of the cough, but if eaten freely at the outset of the cold, they will usually break up what promised, from the severity of the attack, to have been a very serious one.

A writer in one of our medical journals recently recommended the giving of raw onions to children three or four times a week, and when they get too large and strong to be eaten raw, then boil and roast them, but do not abandon their free use.

Another writer, advocating their use, says: During unhealthy seasons, when diphtheria and contagious diseases prevail, onions ought to be eaten at least once a week. Onions are invigorating and prophylactic beyond description…

Modern science has added more benefits, applicable especially to persons consuming industrial doses of onions, allegedly for their contents of vitamins, folate, iron, potassium, quercetin—excellent for the heart, for lowering cholesterol, warding off infections, preventing cancer, and for ever postponing old age!

Unlike fruit and flowers, onions have rarely been represented in art. But in 1881 Pierre-Auguste Renoir had at last enough money to travel abroad. He first visited Algiers, then Venice, Rome, Naples, Capri, Calabria, and Sorrento. In a side-trip to Palermo he painted the portrait of Richard Wagner. Exposed to the style of Raphael and others, he began to paint simple compositions with only a few objects, an apple, a pear and a pomegranate, or six mushrooms. He bought six onions and painted them with two garlics. John Singer Sargent also visited Italy and painted young women wearing onions as if they were large pearls.2

Whether raw onions cause bad breath and digestive discomfort in some individuals is beyond the scope of this presentation. Not so the issue of the crocodile tears. They are caused by the release of sulfur containing volatile compounds that irritate the lacrimal glands, though not enough to stop some mother from insisting her children help her in the kitchen when guests are expected for dinner.


  1. Eric Block. The chemistry of garlic and onions. Scientific American 252, no. 3 (March 1985): 114-21.
  2. Fronia E. Wissman. Renoir’s Onions. Gastronomica 9, no. 2 (Spring 2009): 7-9.

GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief

Spring 2024



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.