The Amazing Story Behind The First Scientific Article On Olive Oil And Health

The Amazing Story Behind The First Scientific Article On Olive Oil And Health

In February 1791, a ship called L’amiable Maria, carrying slaves from Istanbul, docked in the port of Alexandria, at that time belonging to Ottoman Egypt. What his captain did not know is that, in addition to starving slaves, he was carrying an unwanted passenger, the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which was to give rise to one of the worst plagues in the history of Egypt. Thus begins a story that ends with the first scientific article on olive oil and health.

It is not clear whether the 1791 plague outbreak in Egypt was initiated by the landing in Alexandria of the slaves transported on that ship or only contributed to an epidemic that had already occurred.1. In any case, it is very possible that the one of 1791 arrived by sea since every week hundreds of ships arrived at the ports of Alexandria and Rosetta from all corners of Asia and many countries in Africa.2. One of them was the L’amiable Maria.

The Amazing Story Behind The First Scientific Article On Olive Oil And Health

The slave market in Cairo, Egypt. William Jamen Muller (1812-1845).

According to some chronicles, when docking in Alexandria, some of the slaves had already died and the rest were transferred to Cairo, where they were acquired by Ismail Bey al-Kabir “The Great”, emir of Ottoman Egypt at the time, for his army. of rompers. The emir himself, like dozens of Egyptian leaders, was infected and died of the plague, which spread throughout the country. The same chronicles affirm that two thousand people died every day and that the disease did not distinguish between ages, sexes, positions, or social positions.

Of course, the cause of the plague was unknown and preventive measures consisted of avoiding contact with the sick and quarantine. The one in 1791 in Egypt was bubonic plague and it was not extremely contagious. There were known cases of people who lived in the same house and even slept with sick people but were not infected. Also, bubonic plague was not as deadly as pneumonic or septicemic.

At that time, the Englishman George Baldwin, Consul General of the United Kingdom in Egypt, resided in Alexandria. Baldwin was a merchant and spent most of his career in Egypt, where he established valuable trade links for the East India Company, trading with Ottoman rulers. However, he was misunderstood in his home country, probably due to his methods, as we will see later.

The Amazing Story Behind The First Scientific Article On Olive Oil And Health
by J. Bouvier, print,(1780)
George Baldwin in 1780. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although he was neither a doctor nor a scientist, Baldwin was naturally curious and took great interest in studying the transmission and treatment of the plague of 1791. From his observations, he deduced that the plague was not transmitted through the air or the air. swarms of insects that bred in stagnant water, but were only transmitted by contact. However, the contact did not have to be direct, since he observed that healthy people could approach a certain distance, but not beyond, without becoming infected. Unfortunately, he was unable to measure that distance.

Something that obsessed Baldwin was the cause of the disease. We have to remember that although at that time Van Leeuwenhoek had already seen “animalcules” in the water using his microscope and that Eugenio Espejo had related microorganisms to smallpox, microbiology as such a science had not yet been born (nor did Pasteur, of course). Baldwin lacked scientific knowledge and the theory that microorganisms can cause disease had not spread, so his approaches to the cause of the plague followed other paths, much more outlandish, using logic based on what he saw. First, he considered plague to be an effervescence of the body’s humor (blood, nerve fluids, or all together), evidenced by inflamed tumors on the skin (buboes). If the effervescence was greater than the body could bear, the patient perished. But where did that effervescence come from? Baldwin knew that mixing acids with alkalis produced an effervescence in the medium. Therefore, he concluded that the plague was caused by acid and the greater or lesser malignancy of the disease depending on the strength of that acid.

On the other hand, Baldwin thought that the disease passed from patient to patient in the same way as electrical sparks. Electricity travels through the air from one body to another to restore a balance between the charge of the first and that of the second. He also hypothesized that sparks leave the body when it is saturated with electricity or if they have an affinity for another body. Since both the nature of electricity and that of acids is to ignite, that is, to produce flame or heat, Baldwin considered the possibility that the electrical fluid had an acidic nature. In addition, he suggested that fatty materials played an important role in the transmission of the disease since the llama has a predilection for fat. Therefore, what generates the flame should not have an aversion to oily environments.

But Baldwin was not relying on his logic alone. He needed to reinforce it with experimentation. To do this he designed the following experiment. He put some olive oil in a glass and on it, half an inch away (just over 1 cm), a ripe lemon, as a source of acid. After a few hours, he could see drops of lemon running down the side of the glass into the oil and mixing with it. In about eight days, almost all the lemon juice had been used up and mixed with the oil. He repeated the experiment several times and always with success, although the extinction times of the lemon varied depending on its size and degree of ripeness. Baldwin concluded that the acid had a strong predilection for oil, to the point of being willing to abandon its original body, the lemon, to mix with it.

Once the affinity of acids for oil had been demonstrated, Baldwin set out to prove that oil was capable of removing the cause of plague from sick people and thus curing the disease. His opportunity arose when a neighbor complained that a friend of his had contracted the plague. Baldwin recommended that he anoint him with olive oil. The neighbor didn’t and his friend got worse. At Baldwin’s insistence and since the friend was on his last legs, the neighbor ended up using the remedy. The next day, the patient was better although he had a large tumor in his groin. However, after eight days of treatment, the tumor was suppurated and the patient fully recovered. Through other similar cases, Baldwin confirmed his theory that the cause of the disease was an acid, that it traveled from the body to body like an electric spark and that olive oil was capable of removing the acidic fluid from the body. All seven cases that Baldwin treated with olive oil were cured. However, some of the people who rejected the anointing passed away.

Although Baldwin was convinced of his theory, he felt that he needed more evidence to persuade others. Furthermore, what if olive oil was also effective in treating other inflammatory diseases such as a scorpion sting? In his next experiment, he let a scorpion sting five rats, one by one. The first swelled almost to death. So he poured some olive oil over its body and the rat was cured in minutes. Instead, the second rat did not pour oil and died. He repeated the experiment with the other rats, obtaining the same results, which confirmed his hypothesis.

When treating the bodies of plague patients with olive oil, Baldwin noticed a production of foam and a hiss, which he attributed to the fact that the acid was escaping from the body thanks to the oil, as it happens in fermentations. Moreover, in his texts Baldwin cites Newton: “there is an acid in all fermentations”, but extends the proposition on his account to “as the world will say with me, there is no fermentation without an acid”. The British Consul had an air of grandeur.

Baldwin recommended anointing the whole body with pure olive oil as soon as the first symptoms of the plague appeared, for although the doctrine of this remedy would seem to apply especially to the part where the disorder causes the buboes, it might be fatal to wait for the plague. let these form. Furthermore, he was sure that whoever kept himself anointed with the oil would be saved from infection, although he had no proof of this.

However, Baldwin still did not have them all with him and needed to move on to a new phase of his study: testing the remedy on a larger number of patients. To that end, in mid-1792 he sent his recipe to Fray Luis de Pavia, a monk of the Reformed Observant Friars Minor, an order descended from the Franciscans. Fray Luis was the director of the Hospital of San Antonio de Esmirna, in Turkey. The monk treated several sick people with olive oil and reached the same conclusion as Baldwin, having observed the healing of more than 50 people, including children. Indeed, some of the anointed died anyway, but the monk attributed this to the treatment not being done on time or not done with the necessary precision. The monk himself claimed that he was infected and was cured thanks to the treatment.

The Amazing Story Behind The First Scientific Article On Olive Oil And Health

Plague Hospital by Francisco de Goya. 1808-1808. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

At the end of 1792, Fray Luis advanced his research with a small retrospective study, carried out among olive oil carriers, who were always impregnated with it due to their work. The chief porter stated that he had not lost any porters to the disease or the previous epidemic.

A year later, Fray Luis sent his observations to George Baldwin so that he would have proof of the results obtained, along with his most sincere thanks. In addition, he recounted the application of olive oil to other patients, such as those with gout and leprosy, and the case of a girl who was cured by an Armenian of a tumor on her lip that was about to be operated on by European doctors. During the following years, Fray Luis continued to make observations on the effect of olive oil on plague patients, recording all of them, together with the testimonies of other people, in his book Observations on a New Treatment against the Plague Found by George Baldwin.

In his Observations, Fray Luis de Pavia collects other uses of olive oil for health, which he finds in the literature, such as, for example, as a remedy for the bite of snakes, scorpions, lizards, wasps, leeches, ants, and flies, according to the Medical Manual of the German doctor Johann August Unzer (1789). In addition, Unzer recommended olive oil for the treatment of poisonous wounds caused by the bite of angry dogs, as well as wolves, cats, roosters, ducks, etc. Also for burns, and apparently for kidney ailments as it reduces inflammation and causes the emission of urine.

In 1796, Count Leopold de Berchtold ( great-grandfather of Leopold Berchtold), was traveling in Turkey and coincided with Fray Luis de Pavia in Smyrna, who shared his discoveries with him. Berchtold was so enthusiastic that he distributed Baldwin’s recipes at the Greek Hospital in Constantinople and had them translated into Greek, Turkish, and Armenian, among other languages. Furthermore, he stated by letter to Baldwin that he intended to spread knowledge of the efficacy of olive oil against the plague in the Levant, Barbary, and the European countries having relations with these regions. To bring his plan to execution, he delivered a transcript of the instructions for using olive oil according to Fray Luis, as well as certificates from the consuls to Emperor Francis II (last Holy Roman Emperor) and proposed to him to enforce the use of olive oil in their domains.

The Amazing Story Behind The First Scientific Article On Olive Oil And Health

Count Leopold of Berchtold, circa 1800.

But the most important thing is that the count had 6,000 copies of the instructions in Italian and the certificates printed to distribute them throughout the western Mediterranean, reaching the Spanish coast and even Lisbon, as well as the southern Mediterranean (Tangier, Tetouan, Tunisia, Tripoli) and the eastern (Damascus, Aleppo).

Indeed, the instructions of Fray Luis were published in Italian in Vienna in 1797 under the title “Of the new curative preservative remedies against the plague, currently used with great success in the Hospital of S. Antonio in Smyrna, compiled in that city and brought out brought to light by Count Leopold of Berchtold, Knight of the Military Order of Santo Stefano in Tuscany.” The document contains certificates from the British German consuls and vice-consuls.

In addition, Berchtold sent the pamphlet in German and Italian to the Royal Society for publication. In a letter to Baldwin, Berchtold states that The English Annals of Medicine published a circumstantial account of its discovery in 1797, mentioning that it was presented to the Royal Academy of Lisbon and that the pamphlet had been translated into Portuguese, French and Arabic. by said Academy. As the prescription of the remedy spread throughout Europe, news of more cures for all kinds of ailments arrived. For example, Dr. Fothergill of Bath, England, rubbed olive oil on the body of a 6-year-old boy suffering from typhoid fever, and within a few days, the symptoms disappeared. However, as soon as the child was cured, the mother began to show signs of the disease. The procedure was also successful for her.

In 1801, a certain Dr. Scheel (probably Dr. Paul Scheel) published an article entitled “Observations on the Efficacy of Olive Oil in Preventing and Curing Plague” in The Medical and Physical Journal, which had been founded only two years. years before3. Dr. Scheel had had access to Baldwin’s discovery and decided to submit it for publication. The article summarizes the effects of rubbing with olive oil against the plague but adds some homegrown comments. For example, he cites Miratori, according to whom heat prevents the spread of the plague, which is why the workers of the Murano glass factory got rid of the one that devastated Venice in the s. XVI. He further adds that anything that deprives the body of its natural oily wrapper opens a path to infection. He warns, therefore, that washing with soap in times of plague promotes infection. Scheel reflects on the use of other fats other than olive oil, which according to him, could fulfill the same function, such as whale wax or sperm. Today,

The Amazing Story Behind The First Scientific Article On Olive Oil And Health

The first page of “Observations on the Efficacy of Olive Oil in Preventing and Curing Plague” in The Medical and Physical Journal 1801, published by Dr. Scheel.

And what finally became of George Baldwin? The truth is that he did not end too well. In 1793, just two years after his experiments with olive oil, he was deposed from office, and in 1796, frustrated, he left Cairo. He first settled in Florence and then in Naples. While his discoveries were being published in The Medical and Physical Journal, Baldwin returned to London. Before being transferred to Egypt, Baldwin had become interested in the healing effects of magnetism on the unconscious and on his return to England in 1801 he continued his study. However, magnetotherapy was already considered a pseudoscience, and although he published several works on the subject, Baldwin was ridiculed and ostracized. He died in 1826 in London.


I have been asked if olive oil really had any effect. The truth is that we cannot know with the data we have because the investigation was not done as it should have been. At least I have no explanation. In fact, I think there isn’t. I don’t think the oil had any effect. It was just the will to believe it. Fray Luis acknowledges that some died, but he attributed it to poor treatment. Therefore, scientific investigations have to follow the scientific method.



  1. Mikhail A. The Nature of Plague in Late Eighteenth-Century Egypt. Bull. History Med. 2008;82:249-275
  2. Raymond. “Les Grandes Epidémies de peste au Caire aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles. Bull d’Études Orient 1973;25:203–210
  3. Scheel. Observations on the Efficacy of Olive Oil, for Preventing and Curing the Plague. Med Phys J. 1801;6(31):247-251


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