Strange as it seems, until relatively recently rhubarb was an exotic mystery plant from unknown lands. Nowadays it may be more at home in a pie or a crumble than a medicine cupboard, but in the late 18th century there was a ‘Rhubarb mania’ which made its roots one of the most sought-after medicines of the time. Foust writes that ‘physicians of widely divergent theoretical inclinations and clinical practices esteemed rhubarb as much as any medicine, with the possible exception of Peruvian bark’ (Foust 1992, 144) (a cure for malaria). The herb garret at St Thomas’ hospital definitely would have stocked Rhubarb and used it within a wide variety of treatments. Unfortunately, since it came in powdered form, no-one in the West knew exactly which plant’s roots made the best drug. This meant that Rhubarb became a political issue as western scientists and missionaries searched in vain for ‘the true rhubarb’ to cut off the monopoly of eastern merchants and the Russian monarchy. It was only with increasing availability of sugar that it became the popular winter fruit it is known for today.
Rhubarb was in such high demand because it fitted into the traditional medical models which dominated practice at the time. Classical ideas of human physiology suggested that the body was composed of ‘four humours’ (blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm) which combined to produce tissues and fluids. This meant that treatment largely took one of two approaches: rebalancing the good humours or purging the bad. It was not so much disease that was treated, as its symptoms, which were seen to result from an imbalance of the four elements which made up the human body. The ‘humours’ were believed to circulate from the liver to the heart, and then round the body and to the brain through the lungs. These three organs transmogrified them into ‘spirits’ which were the source of movement and metabolism. Belief in these theories of course varied from physician to physician but generally the key to curing illnesses was seen to lie in reordering the body. Ironically, while mocking locals of non-western countries for ancestral medical practices based on tradition, western doctors continued to prescribe their own traditional ‘bleeding, purging, blistering, vomiting, and sweating’ (Schiebinger 2011, 248) which could do more harm than good.
Powdered rhubarb roots, usually mixed into wine, provided the most mild and easy purgative, particularly compared to some of the stronger varieties such as hellebore. It was prescribed for just about any sort of illness as a way to evacuate humours that were seen as overabundant. The famous physician Herman Boerhaave (1669-1738) prescribed Rhubarb ‘in many diseases of children and pregnant women’ (Foust 1992, 138). For example, rhubarb ‘infused in two quarts of strong ale’ was recommended for Rickets in children. Apparently if this was too strong it could be ‘diluted with more ale’ (Foust 1992, 139). He also prescribed regular Rhubarb for healthy newborns, this time followed with a ‘good stomach wine laced with honey’ (Foust 1992, 139). It is important to stress that rhubarb was one herb used for a particular purgative purpose amongst many other suggestions. He also prescribed exercise and a good diet, as well as other humoral remedies. Rhubarb filled a niche suggested by humoral medicine as a mild purgative for long term health treatments. Because it could be used day after day, indeed Boerhaave stresses regular use, demand for medicinal Rhubarb by the 18th century was very high.
Unfortunately, the exact plant which produced this effect was completely unknown in Britain. The best quality Rhubarb between 1657 and the early 1860s came through Russia. This was subject to a monopoly of the Tsar until 1781. Even the Tsar’s officials had no real idea of where the rhubarb came from because they bought it from nomadic merchants at Kiakhta who imported it themselves. This left open the possibility of profit if someone could find the ‘true rhubarb’ and reproduce it in Europe. From 1724, when a botanist called Sherard brought a new rhubarb from Smyrna back home to Eltham, enterprising suggestions for this elusive plant kept coming. Varieties such as Rheum Ribes (named for its ridged leaves), Rharbarbarum Monarchorum (apparently a favourite of monks) and even a Hippolapanthum (horse) variety were investigated until two main types were preferred (Rharbarbarum Undulatum and Rheum Palmatum), but neither proved to be as good as the powdered root from Russian merchants when domestically cultivated. In 1740, Rhabarbarum Undulatum was proclaimed by the esteemed botanist Phillip Miller as ‘equal in Goodness to the foreign rhubarb’ (Miller, The Gardeners Dictionary, 1740, Item. Lapanthum: dock), though without any medical investigation.
Unfortunately, clinical tests showed that this was not the case and the plant, though large and attractive, failed to display the same efficacy as the Russian variety. Some of these are likely to have been carried out in St Thomas’ hospital itself. Miller himself wrote, in a new edition of the same book in 1752, that ‘the roots which have grown in England, are not comparable to the foreign rhubarb’ (Miller, The Gardeners Dictionary, 1752, p.743). The debate of whether the plant was correct but cultivated wrong was also raised at the time. Competitions from scientific societies gave gold and silver medals as well as monetary prizes for anyone who could grow it in large amounts in Britain.
This meant that by the early 19th century rhubarb was relatively commonly available, but none of it was actually as good as the imported roots from Russia. At the same time, humoral medicine was becoming obsolete, and by the 1860s the Russian trade had dried up anyway. With demand for medicinal rhubarb dropping but production increasing, there was an opening for a new way to market the plant.
This would have been impossible without one crucial ingredient. Sugar became more and more widely available through the 19th century, and this made rhubarb palatable. At the same time, farmers developed a method of ‘forcing’ rhubarb where the plant is denied light at an early stage of growth which promotes faster shoot growth. The story is that a merchant called Joseph Myatt tried to sell them at a market stall, but no-one would buy them after they discovered the bitter taste. He persisted, planting an acre of his own plants. Promoting the addition of sugar meant that he and his son after him made a tidy profit from the plant, which still retained the image of being particularly healthy. In a way, rhubarb became a ‘superfood’ of the early 1800s. Retaining this healthy image, Rhubarb was made into wines, pies, and tarts, becoming a favourite in Britain in particular. It is likely that the scientific quest for the true rhubarb led to an interest in rhubarb cultivation without which it would have been far less successful as a food. This can be seen by a contrast with France, which saw no such boom in rhubarb eating. Erasmus Darwin (father of Charles) had his own crossbreed plant which he announced made ‘the best possible of all tarts’ (phytologia p. 580). Modern rhubarb is an unknown hybrid of several varieties of which the best tasting plants were simply cloned through cuttings rather than actual seed growth.
From a mystery miracle drug to a popular cure, to the dinner table, rhubarb captivated 18th century Britain to such an extent that it remains a traditional favourite despite the obscurity and bitterness of the original plant.
In lieu of this, I have included a short Rhubarb tart recipe from Mrs Beeton’s cookbook of 1861 in case anyone is feeling hungry.
Time.—1/2 to 3/4 hour. Average cost, 9d.
Sufficient for 4 or 5 persons.
Seasonable in spring.
1/2 lb. of puff-pastry,
about 5 sticks of large rhubarb,
1/4 lb. of moist sugar.
Line the edges of a deep pie-dish with it, and wash, wipe, and cut the rhubarb into pieces about 1 inch long.
Should it be old and tough, string it, that is to say, pare off the outside skin.
Pile the fruit high in the dish, as it shrinks very much in the cooking; put in the sugar, cover with crust, ornament the edges, and bake the tart in a well-heated oven from 1/2 to 3/4 hour.
If wanted very nice, brush it over with the white of an egg beaten to a stiff froth, then sprinkle on it some sifted sugar, and put it in the oven just to set the glaze: this should be done when the tart is nearly baked.
A small quantity of lemon-juice, and a little of the peel minced, are by many persons considered an improvement to the flavour of rhubarb tart.
- Foust. C,1992, Rhubarb: the wondrous drug,Princeton New Jersey, Princeton University Press
- Schiebinger. L, 2009, Plants and Empire: colonial bioprospecting in the Atlantic world, Cambridge Massachusetts, Harvard University Press
- More old recipes involving rhubarb can be found in Mrs Beeton’s book of household management, first published in 1861, revised many times since.
About the author
Nathan Cornish is a student studying Ancient and Modern History at Trinity College Oxford. He is interested in Early Modern Science and spatial history. In particular, the boundaries between ancient and modern, and wild and human space. Twitter: @NathanCornish15.