Jean Nicot Discovers The Healing Properties Of Tobacco

Last Editorial Review: 10/28/2002

At the time Jean Nicot (pronounced niko) was born in France, about 1530, there was nothing to suggest that his name would be remembered. He was not from a family of consequence in the grand city of Paris. His father was just a humble notary in the old southern town of Nimes. (It was from Nimes that came a tough blue cloth Levi Straus found useful for making tents and pants (blue jeans) for the California goldminers. De Nimes, from Nimes, became jeans.)

Jean Nicot managed to gain employment in the service of the Keeper of the Great Seal of France. In that capacity he attracted the attention of the King, who made him his private secretary. He was then appointed ambassador to Portugal.

Among Nicot's friends in Lisbon was the scholar and botanist Damião de Goes. Once when Damião de Goes had Nicot over for dinner, he showed him a tobacco plant growing in his garden and told him of its marvellous healing properties. The application of the tobacco plant to a cancerous tumor allegedly worked wonders. Nicot tried treating an acquaintance's face wound for 10 days with the plant with excellent results. Nicot became convinced of the healing powers of tobacco from Damião de Goes, Nicot obtained cuttings which he planted in the garden of the French Embassy. In 1560 Nicot wrote of tobacco's medicinal properties. He described tobacco as a panacea and sent tobacco plants to the French court.

Nicot sent snuff to Catherine de Medici, the Queen of France, in 1560 to treat her migraine headaches. Nicot had applied it to his nose and forehead and found it relieved his headaches. Catherine de Medici followed suite and was so favorably impressed. She decreed that tobacco was henceforth to be called Herba Regina, the "queen's herb."

Jean Nicot died in Paris in the year 1600. He was an obscure diplomat in 16th-century Europe. Of Nicot, the standard reference book Le Petit Larousse says merely:

"NICOT (Jean), born Nimes circa 1530 - died Paris 1600. French diplomat. Ambassador to Lisbon, he introduced tobacco into France."

Nicot is, in fact, remembered today only because of his connection to tobacco. His name was given to the tobacco plant (Nicotiana tabacum) and to a stimulating (and addicting) substance now known as nicotine.

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