The Great Tomato Pill War


"We knew an instance of a very severe case of dyspepsia, of ten years standing, cured by the use of the tomato."

In nineteenth century America, the acceptance of the tomato was divided along the Mason-Dixon line. In the South, tomatoes were part of the daily diet. In New England, however, they were not very important. They didn’t grow well, the varieties took longer to mature, and they were unlike any other foods that New Englanders were eating.

All that changed in 1834 when Dr. John Cook Bennett declared that the tomato would cure just about everything from dyspepsia to cholera. His claims were published in newspapers and magazines throughout the country. Bennett took a bunch of theories that had been circulating in the medical community and created a popular craze.

At one point Dr. Bennett met Dr. Alexander Miles, who was busy selling a patent medicine called the “American Hygiene Pill.” Bennett suggested to Miles that he change the name of his pill to “Extract of Tomato.” Miles began advertising his extract of tomato and newspapers in virtually every part of the country came through with headline articles on miraculous tomato cures:

“We knew an instance of a very severe case of dyspepsia, of ten years standing, cured by the use of the tomato. The patient had been unable to get any relief; he could eat no fresh meat, nor boiled vegetables. Reading an account of the virtues of the tomato, he raised some, and used them as food in the fall, stewed, and made some in a jelly for winter use. He was cured.”

- The Boston Cultivator, 1843

A publicity wave surged through every region of the nation and all Americans—lower, middle, and upper classes—were infected with tomato mania. Even those who did not believe in tomato miracles the tomato to be a wholesome and delicious food.

Around 1840, the medical profession decided to investigate the tomato pills and find out what was really in them. All of their research suggested that there was nothing related to the tomato in any of the pills or liquid medicines. Ironic headlines, such as “Tomato Pills Will Cure All Your Ills,” began to appear in the press. But in the end the pill was unimportant: what was important was that Americans started eating more tomatoes.