When you think of tea, it’s as dried leaves that need water to brew in. In many regards, the history of tea was the other way round. Water needed tea to turn it from killer scourge to healthy hydration.

We think of water as pure, fresh and running. Not quite. Here’s a more accurate depiction of it as Death’s Dispensary, in an English cartoon from 1866. Throughout history it has been an efficient, fecund and portable breeding ground for killer microorganisms.

Death's dispensary
George J. Pinwell: Death’s Dispensary, 1866. Photo sourced from Flickr, credited to David Wootton, Bad Medicine, Oxford (2006)

The original legend of how tea was first invented signals just how far back in history concerns about the dangers of water reach. The plausible part of the story is that the Emperor Shen Nong had ordered that subjects must boil water before drinking it, for health reasons. The fiction is that he was later sitting under a tree in 2737 BCE – four thousand years ago –when leaves from the wild tea plant he was leaning against wafted down into the pot of water his servant was boiling for him,  Aha, he said, when he tasted the brew, and created the drink that transformed the world.

The Chinese lacked any concept of germs and their link with diseases, but they knew that water killed and learnt that tea saved lives. Texts dating back almost 3,000 years stress the need to boil water from wells. By the 8th century CE tea is regularly praised for what we now know is germ-killing via its antiseptic properties. The phenolic tannic acids that give tea its astringent taste kill off bacteria that cause cholera, typhoid and dysentery. While the ancients did not know the cause, they were fully aware of the effect.

The armies of Alexander and Cyrus, the two Greats of Macedonia and Persia, traveled with cart-drawn flagons for boiling water. Aristotle, Pliny, and Avincena were not just major thinkers but very practical in their advice: boil it. The major physicians hammered home the message across a millennium, and empirical researchers began to accumulate the data from which principles emerged.

In China and then Europe, tea became a water-purification technology. Recent research shows how direct an impact this had on child mortality, epidemics and urban population growth. Just one small American instance is typical. Chinese laborers working on the Transcontinental railroad were far less likely to suffer intestinal illnesses than white ones. They bought water from San Francisco merchants. The whites drank water from streams. The Chinese always boiled theirs.

Until tea, the only way to make a drink that had taste and nutrients was to ferment it. This explains the prodigious European and American boozing at mealtines: Mark Twain’s breakfast Bourbon, the English worker’s morning meal of thin gruel and beer, and the epidemic of gin among the urban poor that dwarfed modern opiate addiction rates anywhere..

Tea transformed England from a gin and beer culture, where for most of the 18th century the island was afloat on alcohol, the aristocracy pickled from their gouty toes to the top of their powdered wigs, and the poor prostrate in the gin houses with their famous placard of “Drunk for a penny. Dead drunk for tuppence.” The cheap gin distilled in Holland and transported in large jars wasn’t called Mother’s Ruin by accident.

Modern marketing tends to stress the health benefits of tea as coming from the anti-oxidants and other chemical compounds it contains. Just by making water a safe and tasty drink, it was one of the most progressive contributors to health in history.

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