Chocolate for Invalids

February 22nd, 2012

In April 1792, Isaac Craig sent Captain Jonathan Cass some supplies for the sick men under his command: five pounds sugar, two pounds of tea, and four pounds of chocolate. These three items also show up in lists of hospital stores throughout the 1790s. Why? Were they being used as medicine?

Not exactly. Medical theory and practice of the time concerned itself not only with the ailment at hand but with the diet of the invalid. Tea was believed to act as a sedative and sugar had been used as a medical additive for centuries. Chocolate was not only used to improve the taste of some medicines, but was a part of the recommended diet for patients suffering from a variety of illnesses.

Dr. Benjamin Rush, prominent Philadelphia physician, mentions chocolate in his Medical Inquiries and Observations, Volume 1, as a part of the diet for a person preparing to be inoculated against smallpox: “Tea, coffee, and even weak chocolate, with biscuit or dry toast, may be used as usual.” Chocolate was also used in cases of consumption (tuberculosis), asthma, yellow fever, and cholera. Chocolate was useful because it was fairly easy to digest while providing nourishment. Consumption and other diseases caused the patient to waste away; chocolate’s fatty content could reverse the trend and hopefully aid in recovery.

The chocolate, tea, and sugar that Craig sent from Pittsburgh for Cass’ invalids were not, precisely, medicine. Nonetheless, they were intended to help soldiers regain their health and get back to duty by providing a “healthy” diet.