Tea Was a Real Life Saver in 18th Century England
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Tea Was a Real Life Saver in 18th Century England

Key Takeaways

  • Death rates should've risen sharply in early Industrial England, but the introduction of tea in this period may have curbed that rise

  • Tea required boiled water -- and that killed nasty bacteria, saving countless lives

  • This look back at the eighteenth century has lessons for today's world, where too many people still lack clean drinking water

MONDAY, May 27, 2024 (HealthDay News) -- Sipped from porcelain cups amid the music of Mozart and periwigs of the 1700s, tea was introduced to England and began its quiet work saving thousands of lives, new research confirms.

It wasn't the leaves that kept tea drinkers out of danger: It was the boiled water tea was served in.

Unboiled water had long left England's residents at very high risk for bacterial illnesses such as dysentery, dubbed the "bloody flux" during this period.

Tea helped change all that, the new study found.

When the beverage was first introduced into England around the 1780s, the Industrial Revolution was just getting underway, explained Colorado University Boulder researcher Francisca Antman.

"Population density is rising, cities are really growing, people are being packed tighter and tighter," she said. "That should actually be a period where we see a lot of increasing mortality. But we end up seeing this surprising decline in mortality that can be explained by the introduction of tea and, more specifically, the boiling of water."

Antman, a professor of economics at CU Boulder, noted that the importance of boiling water wasn't understood in the 18th century.

However, "tea became affordable to nearly everyone in England in the late 1780s," she said, so the practice quickly spread.

Just how important was this shift from cool to hot beverages, in terms of health?

To find out, Antman tracked 18th century death rates before and after tea's introduction in 400 different English parishes. She also investigated the sources of water available to people living in each parish -- whether the water was running or stagnant, for example.

"In areas where you expect water quality should have been inherently worse, you see a bigger decline in mortality when tea comes in," Antman said in a university news release.

"It’s not like the water itself is pure or up to the standards of drinking water that we have today," she added. "But what you see is those areas that should have benefited more do benefit more as they begin to boil water for tea consumption."

The new findings, published recently in the journal The Review of Economics and Statistics, shouldn't simply be viewed as ancient history, according to Antman.

"We know water is important, not just for health but also for people’s economic lives and social lives," she said. "We know there are still many developing nations where access to clean water, especially for women and girls, is still a struggle."

In the example of tea, people made an incredibly healthy change away from germ-filled water as a side effect of a behavior they embraced for reasons other than health.

"It is a great example of how a population adopted a healthy behavior without someone trying to change culture or customs from the outside, but because they wanted to adopt the practice from within," Antman said. "It’s something we can look at and possibly try to emulate when considering future interventions aimed at improving health more generally, including with respect to water."

More information

Find out more about dysentery at the Cleveland Clinic.

SOURCE: Colorado University Boulder, news release, May 20, 2024

What This Means For You

The next time you settle down for a nice cup of tea, remember that it might have saved an ancestor's life.

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