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Researchers in Museums


Engaging the public with research & collections


Food As Medicine

By Gemma Angel, on 24 June 2013

Sarah Savage by Sarah Savage






This blog post is dedicated to two of my favourite passions: medicine and food. As an historian of medicine examining epidemics, I am constantly fascinated by what past societies consumed for health and medicinal purposes. Today, most Londoners rely upon a trip to the local pharmacy for mass-produced pharmaceutical drugs to alleviate their symptoms or cure an illness. However, what did peoples consume before little engineered white pills? In my own research on the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, I discovered that American and English patients relied upon the use of herbal salves spread over the body and the consumption of soups, broths, milk, and chilled custards to reduce fevers and nourish the ill. One’s diet during a period of illness shifted from heavy meat and starch-based foods to items viewed as more acceptable to the feeble body such as clear vegetable-based broths, ground spices in warm water, and fresh fruits. Many of these natural foods do not seem so foreign to the present day reader. A warm bowl of soup and citrus fruit are commonplace today if someone is under the weather. On May 24th 2013 I attended the conference Spices and Medicine: From Historical Obsession to Research of the Future hosted by the UCL SoP Centre for Pharmacognosy and Phytotherapy, examining the use of spices and food for medicinal purposes. Archeologists, historians, and pharmacists discussed various different natural cures from those located in Roman ports in the 1st century CE ,to Southeast Asian missions in the 18th century CE. Some of the examined food items do not appear in our daily diets unless you are already fond of candied lark. Other foods and spices are still used today as cooking ingredients including black pepper, garlic, onions, limes, turmeric, ginger, and rice. As part of ancient and early modern medicinal treatments, the above listed ingredients had an intended medicinal purpose other than to simply add flavour to a dish. In Germany on the Rhine River, archeologists even discovered a military hospital that contained an ancient herb garden and spices in patients’ rooms for treatments. The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archeology contains the remarkable remains of dried apricots, peaches, dates, and almonds that would have been part of the Egyptian diet.

Dried fruit in PetrieModern medicine acknowledges the benefits of foods rich in vitamin C as immunity boosters during flu and cold seasons. It is interesting to wonder whether the ancient people recognized that certain vitamin C rich fruits had inherent medicinal properties, or were these delicious fruits simply part of their diet for flavour reasons more so than preventative measures? One archeologist during the conference discussed the importance of trade routes to bring spices and fruits from the East, Middle East, and North Africa to Roman territories throughout the Mediterranean and Europe. During the Islamic period, there was a major increase in the range of spices imported into the empire. Since spices were expensive commodities, it is rare for archeologists to find spices in these ancient ports; however, letters from the Islamic period discuss what goods were traded and in what quantities. For those archeologists interested in food, it must be fascinating to find 2,000-year-old garlic cloves, squeezed limes, and dried aubergines, all buried under layers of sand. Although present day peoples consume pharmaceutical drugs for health, certain foods such as chicken noodle soup and herbal teas remain go-to sources of nourishment during times of illness.