We had never heard of anyone dying from drinking coffee before, but this week we found this article about celebrated French author and playwright, Honore de Balzac. On August 18th, 1850, Balzac who apparently was a connoisseur of fine coffee, drank around 50 cups of coffee on an empty stomach and eventually passed away at the prime age of 51. This was a usual occurrence for Balzac, who regularly would drink a copious amount of coffee on an empty stomach. According to the aforementioned article, “Some say he drank 50 cups of coffee a day, but it’s not like he kept count, and it sounds like he drank way more than 50 cups a day when he felt like it.” And because of this, it is a widely held belief that Balzac died of caffeine poisoning.
Balzac was aware of the potential dangers of coffee, but as it is with most of us, we throw caution to the wind and enjoy that 3rd, 4th, or 5th cup of coffee (in one day!). From his works, we can assume that he both loved and hated it, but he encouraged its use in hopes of inspiring creativity. Before he passed on, Balzac penned a beautiful ode to coffee – and encouraging drinking said delicious drink on an empty stomach (obviously he didn’t realize that it was entirely fatal). As misguided as his advice is, we cannot deny that it’s beautifully written:
This coffee falls into your stomach, a sack whose velvety interior is lined with tapestries of suckers and papillae. The coffee finds nothing else in the sack, and so it attacks these delicate and voluptuous linings; it acts like a food and demands digestive juices; it wrings and twists the stomach for these juices, appealing as a pythoness appeals to her god; it brutalizes these beautiful stomach linings as a wagon master abuses ponies; the plexus becomes inflamed; sparks shoot all the way up to the brain. From that moment on, everything becomes agitated. Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic rushes up with clattering wagons and cartridges; on imagination’s orders, sharpshooters sight and fire; forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink—for the nightly labor begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder.
Balzac had much more to say about coffee, and you can read it in this translation by Robert Onopa.