That bean of caffeine!

A third-year medical student offers a brief history of that vital beverage, coffee.


How do you fail your medicine rotation with Dr. James Newman as your attending? By not knowing when the first pizza was eaten or who created and used the first stethoscope.

Acutely aware of the need to be on top of my game, I hurriedly searched for my instant Folgers as the clock turned to 7:55 a.m. When I arrived at morning rounds at 8:02 a.m, still sleepy-eyed without my watery, standard-issue med student cup of coffee, Dr. Newman gave me an up-and-down stare, and then barked to the team: “Cafeteria!”

On the way, he did not miss an opportunity to pimp me in my caffeine-deprived state. When was the first coffee bean discovered? Which French writer was said to have drunk 40 to 50 cups of coffee a day? From which language does the word “coffee” come? Before I could even begin to pretend to know the answer, the coffee lady bellowed, “Our machine is broken. Sorry, no more coffee.”

There was a slow groan from the crowd as if the last Justin Bieber concert ticket had just been sold. Suddenly, the whole room faded and all I could see was Dr. Newman … reaching for the last available cup of coffee at the same time I did. The last cup in the entire hospital.

According to one popular legend, coffee beans were discovered in Ethiopia in the 9th century when a goat herder, Kaldi, noticed that his flock was unusually alert after having munched on some berries—presumably coffea arabica “berries.” Kaldi excitedly brought the berries to a monk in a nearby monastery. Unamused, the monk dismissively threw them in the fire, and thus created the pleasant aroma that lures us to the Starbucks counter (11. Avey T. The Caffeinated History of Coffee. Public Broadcasting Station (PBS). The History Kitchen. April 8, 2013.).

The trade between Venice and the East allowed the introduction of coffee to wealthy Italians in this era. However, because coffee was seen as a Muslim drink, many in the Catholic Church wanted to ban its consumption, calling the beverage the bitter invention of Satan. Pope Clement VIII saw the light, however, when he ruled in favor of coffee drinkers. After tasting the beverage, he and his advisors supposedly reasoned that such a delicious drink could not be the invention of Satan and sought to baptize it, claiming “Why, this Satan's drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it.”(22. Cole A. Drink Coffee? Off With Your Head! National Public Radio. Jan. 17, 2012.) The first coffee house in Europe was subsequently opened in 1615 in Venice (33. Smith R. The History of Coffee. In: Clifford MN, ed. Coffee: Botany, Biochemistry and Production of Beans and Beverage. Springer; 1985:1-12.).

The coffee fever reached its peak in Europe after J. S. Bach composed the “Coffee Cantata” or “Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht” (literally, Be still, stop chattering) in 1732-35. A satire on the coffee addiction that gripped Europe at the time, the cantata features an exasperated father who begs his daughter to forsake coffee. Leischen, a young woman openly undeterred by her father's wishes, entrancedly sings, “Coffee, coffee, I must have it/And if someone wants to treat me/Ah, fill my cup with coffee!!” (44. Ambrose ZP. BWV 211 Schweigt Stille, Plaudert Nicht (Kaffeekantate). University of Vermont (UVM). Sept. 30, 2014.). Her father progressively threatens to take away her meals and clothes, but she counters defiantly, “Dear Father, do not be so strict! For if I may not thrice each day drink/My little cup of coffee, indeed to my distress I'll turn/Into a dried-up goat for roasting.” At the end of his rope, Lieschen's father forbids her to marry if she continues to consume coffee. She acquiesces to his request to give up coffee … only if he agrees to find her a lover. She has only one condition for her many suitors—her husband-to-be must let her drink coffee, singing: “No suitor come into my house/Unless he's made to me the promise/And put it in the marriage contract, too/That I shall be allowed to brew/Whenever I desire, my coffee.”

Thankfully, our love for and dependence on coffee has only grown stronger from century to century. Take Ben Yu, a Harvard undergraduate who partnered with venture capitalist Devan Soni to create “Sprayable Energy” in which 4 sprays of a mix of caffeine and water on the skin reportedly provides the same caffeine content to you as a small cup of coffee. The purpose of the spray? To help reduce the systemic side effects of caffeine so that alertness does not come at the price of jitteriness, the entrepreneurs told the New York Daily News (55. Knowles D. Sprayable Energy Makers Hope Spray on Caffeine Will Become World's Stimulant of Choice. New York Daily News. Aug. 22, 2013.).

As for me, I am sticking with coffee to bolster my journey in medicine, fighting off one consultant at a time for my cup of joe. A poster on my kitchen wall reminds me every day: “Coffee! You can sleep when you're dead.”

And as for the incident in the cafeteria, I used the old “Look over there!” routine, then grabbed the last cup and ran. Dr. Newman is hyper enough without caffeine.