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April 1968

A Cloud No Bigger than a Man's Hand Or Body Blows to the Well-beloved Bean

A JAMA editorial of more than passing interest to AAs

THE NOW almost forgotten Bach's "Coffee Cantata" was, in its time, an eloquent musical protest against those who sought to dissuade women from drinking coffee. Many laymen and, allegedly, some doctors believed the beverage to be a cause of sterility. To be sure, this was not the first or last absurd notion entertained about coffee. Ever since its discovery in Ethiopia about one thousand years ago, coffee has provided many grounds for lively controversy. In Moslem lands, where the potable bean had enjoyed great popularity long before it became known in Europe, orthodox followers of Mahomet exhorted the faithful to shun it as one would an intoxicant. Similarly, in Europe, where the beverage was introduced during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it provoked religious, political, and medical disputes. The conflicting attitudes were often mirrored in literature. While Ben Jonson disparaged coffee as "a loathsome poison--not yet understood, syrup of soot, or essence of old shoes. . .," Alexander Pope extolled it in his memorable "As long as Mocha's happy tree shall grow. . . So long her honors, name and praise shall last." It was also Pope who said that coffee "makes the politician wise"--a feat deemed impossible by many.

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