From Inedible to Indispensable: When a Quack Doctor Touted Tomatoes as a Medical Cure-All

nito100/iStock via Getty Images
nito100/iStock via Getty Images

Americans who opened a magazine or newspaper in the late 1930s stood a good chance of seeing an editorial or advertisement that took them by surprise. Buried in the pages of agricultural and gardening journals and other publications were editorials and ads touting the health benefits of tomatoes. Up until just before that time, most of the northern parts of the United States considered tomatoes virtually inedible—and were scared off by their resemblance to the poisonous nightshade berry. Some gardeners planted them exclusively for decorative purposes.

But now seemingly reputable authorities like physician John Cook Bennett were touting the miracle properties of the fruit (yes, a tomato is a fruit—technically). Tomatoes, Bennett claimed, could ease diarrhea, dyspepsia, indigestion, and even cholera. It could counteract the “violent bilious attacks” brought about by traveling. Barring more investigative research, there might not be any limit to what tomatoes could do for a person’s constitution.

Little by little, Bennett’s enthusiastic endorsement took hold. Before long, hundreds of thousands of people were buying pills that claimed to have “extract of tomato.” In the span of just a couple of decades, the tomato went from being considered toxic to nature’s most valued medicine.

 

Bennett was, of course, a quack. Like many self-endorsed medical experts of the 19th century, he had precious little objective data to go on. Though he did indeed earn a medical degree in 1825 and practiced in Ohio, his credibility was strained when he began selling degrees for $10.

Operating a diploma mill did not prevent him from becoming a professor of midwifery and president of the Willoughby Medical College of Lake Erie University in 1835, where his first lecture was devoted to his pet topic: tomatoes. Bennett claimed he had visited the "Scotch and French Royal Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons" in Montreal and was struck by their hearty endorsement of the tomato, which was given to “convalescent persons” to increase their wellness. The tomato, which originated in South America and came to Europe sometime in the 16th century before becoming known in America in the 1800s, was not normally perceived as desirable either as food or as medicine. At the time, some southern states enjoyed the vegetable, but it remained more of a mystery in northern states.

A vintage advertisement promoting tomatoes
rtguest/iStock via Getty Images

Convinced the American public was missing out, Bennett became a tomato evangelist, circulating a transcript of his lecture to various publications both locally and nationally. (Though he was not the first: Physician Thomas Sewall gave a lecture in Washington in 1825 crediting Virginia farmers with growing the beneficial vegetable. Writer Horatio Gates Spafford also sang the tomato’s praises in 1831, though he died right after his pro-tomato article was published.) The reason periodicals like the Cleveland Herald and the Maine Farmer seemed to be interested in his argument was that there was a sharp juxtaposition in the public perception of the tomato as harmful with his hearty endorsement of it.

Bennett, who could hardly profit personally from his salesmanship but instead seemed to approach it with a degree of altruism, continued. Tomatoes could ease stomach problems, the aches of rheumatism, and more. Citing his “thorough study” of ancient texts, Bennett claimed he could find no evidence that the tomato was absent in any part of the world. He published recipes for tomatoes, including tomato sauce, tomato pickles, raw tomatoes, and the not-terribly-healthy suggestion of frying them in butter. He suggested people make ketchup using tomatoes at a time most ketchup was made with fish or mushrooms. He approached hucksters like Archibald Miles, who sold an ill-defined American Hygiene Pill, and advised he would be better off calling it a Tomato Extract pill.

Bennett was right. Miles had wild success with the pills, which he dubbed Dr. Miles’ Compound Extract of Tomato. So did Guy Phelps, a Yale medical school graduate who marketed similar pills. Debuting in 1837, the pills and their many copycats were devoured by people who had been sold on the attributes of tomatoes by Bennett. (Rather than cure diarrhea, however, some of the pills were cut with laxatives.)

Despite his advice to Phelps, Bennett himself didn’t seem to be a huge believer in tomato compounds and held the forward-thinking philosophy that they should be consumed whole for the greatest benefit. “Now, if the virtue is in the tomato,” he wrote, “why not give it in its simple state uncompounded? If it is in the medicines compounded with it, why not leave it out entirely? I contend that the tomato itself, uncompounded, possesses all the virtue I have ascribed to it, as I shall hereafter show. The simple extract or essence should be administered where it is indicated, and all compounds be rejected.”

But Bennett’s advice had to overcome a public appetite for convenience. By 1840, many pills purporting to be healthy were said to contain tomato, though it’s impossible to know how many peddlers actually bothered inserting any kind of extract or compound in their ingredients. Pharmacies put up signs broadcasting that tomato products were sold there. That same year, Bennett moved to Illinois and befriended Mormon leader Joseph Smith, who took his endorsement to heart. Word spread in the Mormon community of the tomato's benefits.

Naturally, there was criticism from the medical community, which began circulating word in 1840 that many of these “tomato pills” contained no actual tomato. Even some agricultural outlets refused to be swayed, with The American Agriculturalist dismissing Bennett’s actions, writing that “the whole thing savors of the most arrant quackery.” That didn’t stop newspapers from picking up on the hype and exhorting the virtues of the vegetable itself. One 1843 article in the Boston Cultivator documented a case of a dyspepsia patient who turned his life around:

“We knew an instance of a very severe case of dyspepsia, of ten years standing, cured by the use of the tomato. The patient had been unable to get any relief; he could eat no fresh meat, nor boiled vegetables. Reading an account of the virtues of the tomato, he raised some, and used them as food in the fall, stewed, and made some in a jelly for winter use. He was cured.”

 

Aside from a caution against “unrestrained indulgence,” as though people might eat bushel after bushel of tomatoes in pursuit of health, no real anti-tomato contingent ever emerged. Articles recommended people might consider tomatoes three times daily with every meal. Cholera suffers might be revived.

The tomato pill craze lasted through 1850, at which point American consumers had grown comfortable enough with whole tomatoes in their meals and in ketchup that a supplement held little appeal. Bennett, who had espoused the benefits of the vegetable, is still seen as being primarily responsible for the general American public’s acceptance of the tomato, which still had some growing pains ahead: Early ketchup bottlers prior to the 1876 debut of the Heinz company weren’t terribly hygienic, selling rotten product.

Tomatoes are pictured
John Cook Bennett declared tomatoes could cure many maladies.
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Today, tomatoes are considered rich in lycopene, a natural antioxidant that may have some effect against heart disease. While they’re not the catch-all miracle cure Bennett proclaimed, at least he was on to something, which is more than can be said for some of the other health fads of the era ... like opium. In professing the ethically dubious benefits of the vegetable, the doctor managed to reframe the tomato from a hated and possibly toxic plant to a staple of the American diet. Just not one that could cure diseases.

10 Wireless Chargers Designed to Make Life Easier

La Lucia/Moshi
La Lucia/Moshi

While our smart devices and gadgets are necessary in our everyday life, the worst part is the clumsy collection of cords and chargers that go along with them. Thankfully, there are more streamlined ways to keep your phone, AirPods, Apple Watch, and other electronics powered-up. Check out these 10 wireless chargers that are designed to make your life convenient and connected.

1. Otto Q Wireless Fast Charging Pad; $40

Otto Q Wireless Fast Charging Pad
Moshi

Touted as one of the world's fastest chargers, this wireless model from Moshi is ideal for anyone looking to power-up their phone or AirPods in a hurry. It sports a soft, cushioned design and features a proprietary Q-coil module that allows it to charge through a case as thick as 5mm.

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2. Gotek Wireless Charging Music Station; $57

Gotek Wireless Charging Music Station
Rego Tech

Consolidate your bedside table with this clock, Bluetooth 5.0 speaker, and wireless charger, all in one. It comes with a built-in radio and glossy LED display with three levels of brightness to suit your style.

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3. BentoStack PowerHub 5000; $100 (37 percent off)

BentoStack PowerHub 5000
Function101

This compact Apple accessory organizer will wirelessly charge, port, and store your device accessories in one compact hub. It stacks to look neat and keep you from losing another small piece of equipment.

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4. Porto Q 5K Portable Battery with Built-in Wireless Charger; $85

Porto Q 5K Portable Battery with Built-in Wireless Charger
Moshi

This wireless charger doubles as a portable battery, so when your charge dies, the backup battery will double your device’s life. Your friends will love being able to borrow a charge, too, with the easy, non-slip hook-up.

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5. 4-in-1 Versatile Wireless Charger; $41 (31 percent off)

4-in-1 Versatile Wireless Charger
La Lucia

Put all of those tangled cords to rest with this single, temperature-controlled charging stand that can work on four devices at once. It even has a built-in safeguard to protect against overcharging.

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6. GRAVITIS™ Wireless Car Charger; $20 (31 percent off)

GRAVITIS™ Wireless Car Charger
Origaudio

If you need to charge your phone while also using it as a GPS, this wireless device hooks right into the car’s air vent for safe visibility. Your device will be fully charged within two to three hours, making it perfect for road trips.

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7. Futura X Wireless 15W Fast Charging Pad; $35 (30 percent off)

Futura X Wireless 15W Fast Charging Pad
Bezalel

This incredibly thin, tiny charger is designed for anyone looking to declutter their desk or nightstand. Using a USB-C cord for a power source, this wireless charger features a built-in cooling system and is simple to set up—once plugged in, you just have to rest your phone on top to get it working.

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8. Apple Watch Wireless Charger Keychain; $20 (59 percent off)

Apple Watch Wireless Charger Keychain
Go Gadgets

This Apple Watch charger is all about convenience on the go. Simply attach the charger to your keys or backpack and wrap your Apple Watch around its magnetic center ring. The whole thing is small enough to be easily carried with you wherever you're traveling, whether you're commuting or out on a day trip.

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9. Wireless Charger with 30W Power Delivery & 18W Fast Charger Ports; $55 (38 percent off)

Wireless Charger from TechSmarter
TechSmarter

Fuel up to three devices at once, including a laptop, with this single unit. It can wirelessly charge or hook up to USB and USB-C to consolidate your charging station.

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10. FurniQi Bamboo Wireless Charging Side Table; $150 (24 percent off)

FurniQi Bamboo Wireless Charging Side Table
FoneSalesman

This bamboo table is actually a wireless charger—all you have to do is set your device down on the designated charging spot and you're good to go. Easy to construct and completely discreet, this is a novel way to charge your device while entertaining guests or just enjoying your morning coffee.

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This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links. If you haven't received your voucher or have a question about your order, contact the Mental Floss shop here.

The Oldest Restaurant in Every Country, Mapped

So which one are you visiting first?
So which one are you visiting first?
NetCredit

New trendy restaurants pop up all the time, but there’s something extra-special about sitting down in a place that’s been around for a century or two. St. Peter Stiftskulinarium in Salzburg, Austria, has been around for more than 12.

Founded in 803, it’s the oldest operating restaurant in the world, according to a survey by online lender NetCredit. The second oldest, Wurtskuchl (or Sausage Kitchen) in Regensburg, Germany, didn’t enter the global eatery scene until a few hundred years later, in 1146. Of the top 10, Europe boasts an impressive eight entries, including Scotland’s Sheep Heid Inn, France’s La Couronne, and Wales’s aptly named The Old House. The fourth-place finisher, Ma Yu Ching’s Bucket Chicken House in Kaifeng, China, opened its doors in 1153; and Japan’s Honke Owariya, which began as a confectionery shop in 1465 before shifting its focus to soba, is in the ninth spot.

oldest restaurants in europe
The founders of Wales's "The Old House" must've known they'd end up on this map.
NetCredit

By comparison, North America’s oldest restaurants seem practically new. The longest-standing institution is Newport, Rhode Island’s White Horse Tavern, which a pirate named William Mayes founded in 1673. It quickly became the go-to venue for the city’s local government meetings, and it stayed in the Mayes family for the following two centuries.

Nearly 150 years after Mayes became a business owner, a hole-in-the-wall tamale shop with no name opened in Bogotá, Colombia, which locals began to call “La Puerta Falsa” after “the false door” set in the wall of a nearby cathedral. The name stuck, and the tiny restaurant now has the designation of being South America’s oldest.

map of south america's oldest restaurants
If you go to La Puerta Falsa, you've got to get a tamale.
NetCredit

Since the study is based solely on internet searches, the data isn’t totally comprehensive. If the researchers were unable to find online evidence of a country’s oldest restaurant, they grayed out the country. Tunisia’s El M’Rabet is Africa’s oldest restaurant on this map, for example, but it could easily be younger than an eatery in Libya or Sudan that simply doesn’t have an online presence through websites or social media.

map of africa's oldest restaurants
Chez Wou in Cameroon is best known for its ginger duck.
NetCredit

You can find out more about the survey here.