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