Ginseng’s Cross-Cultural Virility

By Steven Foster |

When the first published Western description of ginseng appeared in a French journal in 1713, there was no mention of ginseng’s reputation as an aphrodisiac or to enhance virility, likely because the earliest European writers on ginseng were Jesuit priests. In 1725 Pope Benóit XIII received a gift of ginseng from the Chinese Emperor. No comment from the Vatican.

Asian ginseng, Korean Ginseng, Chinese Ginseng, Panax ginseng; 人参; Ren Shen; ren-shenVirginian, Colonel William Byrd II (1674-1744), pictured in a 1725 portrait, with confident swagger was an obvious ginseng nibbler. Writing on 31 May 1737 to Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753, British Museum founder ) he muses, “Insomuch that were I to judge the veracity of the Jesuits by this Instance, I shou’d pronounce them very honest Fellows. As for the merry Effects ascribd to it towards obliging the Bashfull Sex, the good [Jesuit] Father[s] say nothing of it, nor dos my Experience reach so far.” In a letter of 20 August 1737 to Sloane, Byrd continues, “I believe ever since the Tree of Life has been so strongly guarded the Earth has never produced any vegetable so friendly to man as Ginseng. Nor do I say this at Random, or by the Strength of my Faith, but by my own Experience. I have found it very cordial and reviving after great Fatigue, it warms the Blood frisks the Spirits strengthens the Stomach and comforts the Bowels exceedingly. All this it performs without any of those naughty Effects that might make men too troublesome and impertinent to their poor Wives.”  Oh, but the mistresses. . .

American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius, American ginseng roots,  西洋参, xi yang shen Some 18th century Dr. Oz probably hawked ginseng root on a London street corner with a wink and a smile to the passerby. But where there’s health claims for herbs, there’s always an all-knowing expert to debunk it, like Scottish physician, William Cullen (1710-1790), in his 1789 Materia Medica (vol 2, p.161)—“I have known a gentleman a little advanced in life, who chewed a quantity of this root every day for several years, but who acknowledged that he never found his venereal faculties in the least improved by it.”

Panax quinquefolius, American ginseng; 西洋参; xi yang shenThe protocol of the famed Dr. Cullen was followed for treatment of George Washington’s sore throat on what became his last day in December 1799: blood letting (124 ounces removed), blistering his throat with an irritating beetle, copious evacuation of the bowels—and when all else—fails, a dose of mercury. Two of the three attending physicians achieved their medical degrees under the instruction of Dr. Cullen at the University of Edinburgh.

Cause of death? “Learned quackery,” to quote sectarian rival contemporaries.

References [to follow]

American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius