Today, we find out what Montezuma's revenge really
was. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Columbus brought two kinds
of trouble back from the New World. One was gold
with all the mischief that went with it. The other
Renaissance botanists and herbalists were
immediately taken by tobacco. The American Indians
had used it sparingly and ceremonially. That, in
itself, gave this new plant an aura of importance.
By 1597, botanist John Gerard wrote that tobacco
induced visions. He also said it cured kidney pain,
gout, toothache, worms, ague, ulcers, scabies,
burns, and gunshot wounds. It was a snake-bite
antidote and its oil cured deafness. Gerard
objected to smoking the stuff, and he apparently
realized it was addictive.
By the late 1500s, tobacco had addicted Europe, and
playwright Ben Jonson wrote, "[Tobacco] is good for
nothing but to choke a man." Robert Burton was more
vehement: "'Tis a plague, a mischief ... damned
tobacco, the ruin of ... body and soul."
On the other hand, the best known work of
Elizabethan poet John Beaumont was his
Metamorphosis of Tobacco. Beaumont
said that tobacco heals quarrels and makes you
lucky in love.
Tobacco-growing was the first industry in the
Americas. By the 1600s Europeans took up slavery:
first to grow tobacco, then to provide another
dangerous New-World product, sugar.
For the next 400 years, literature both sainted and
demonized tobacco. The smoke, you might say, began
clearing in the 19th century. By then tobacco's
lethal power was clear enough to anyone who'd admit
it. Essayist Charles Lamb struggled to rid himself
of the stuff. He wrote to Wordsworth in 1805, "[I
must] leave off Tobacco. ... [I think] it does not
agree with me." Nine years later he wrote another
friend, "This very night I am going to leave off
tobacco! Surely there must be some other world in
which this unconquerable purpose shall be
The first modern medical study of tobacco's effects
came out of a hospital in France in 1859. It showed
that, of 68 patients who'd developed cancer of the
lips, every one used tobacco. But it was 1954
before the American Cancer Society and the British
Medical Research Council both wrote wide-ranging
reports that began showing just how murderous
tobacco really is.
Today our taxes support tobacco and the health
costs it heaps on us. We laughed when newspapers
showed ten tobacco executives raising their right
hands to swear they believed tobacco is
non-addictive. Meanwhile, Montezuma has had his
revenge. European colonists killed off twenty
million Native Americans or more -- chiefly by
bringing in smallpox, flu, and measles. That's a
terrible number. But, by now, tobacco has killed
far more than that, and the deaths go on -- hardly
dented by what science, or experience, tells us.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds