Jean Nicot presenting the tobacco plant to Queen Catherine de Medicis and the Grand Prior of the House of Lorraine, 1655
Jean Nicot was a French scholar and diplomat who is credited with introducing the tobacco leaf as a universal remedy for ailments in France during the 16th century. Tobacco's early popularity in Europe was primarily based on the plant's supposed medical properties, rather than recreational use, and Jean Nicot was a strong proponent of that belief. A variety of sources feature different accounts of Nicot's tobacco experiments and their subsequent results, but it's generally agreed upon that he's responsible for being the first to introduce tobacco to France, mainly in the form of snuff tobacco.
A variety of sources feature different accounts of Nicot's tobacco experiments and their subsequent results
Nicot's first interaction with tobacco was during his tenure as French ambassador to Portugal when he saw the plant growing in Lisbon's royal gardens. He purportedly learned the Native Americans believed tobacco had healing powers (though some sources claim Portuguese humanist philosopher Damião de Góis told Nicot about tobacco's medicinal uses). According to one account, Nicot decided to experiment after his chef cut his thumb with a kitchen knife. Nicot wrapped the cut with fresh tobacco leaves and was surprised and intrigued when the wound healed. Other anecdotes claim that Nicot applied tobacco leaves to a young lady's severe facial rash, and to a man who was experiencing sharp pains in his foot, eventually healing both of their afflictions.
Jean continued to pursue his medicinal experiments with tobacco, returning to France sometime around 1561 to report his findings to Queen Catherine de' Medici. One day, Nicot reportedly practiced his theories on the Queen herself when she was experiencing a severe headache, suggesting she should sniff some powder he'd crushed from dried tobacco leaves. The Queen obliged, took a pinch of the powder and put it in her nostril, causing her to sneeze multiple times, but her headache noticeably improved.
Though using snuff became promptly fashionable, it was primarily used for medicinal purposes, typically available for purchase at local apothecaries. Over the years, snuff became popular for recreational use, many people favoring it for its stimulating effects. Smoking eventually became the most popular method of tobacco consumption, though snuff still maintained a favorable reputation.
One day, Nicot reportedly practiced his theories on the Queen herself when she was experiencing a severe headache, suggesting she should sniff some powder he'd crushed from dried tobacco leaves.
Nicot eventually retired and lived out his final years near the village of Brie-Comte-Robert located in north-central France, on land he was given in recognition of his service to the French royal court. It was there that he also notably compiled one of the first French dictionaries before passing away in 1604. His legacy was commemorated in the mid-18th century when Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus named the tobacco plant Nicotiana in acknowledgement of Jean Nicot's efforts in promoting the plant's general use.
Wooden Snuff Box, France, 1801-1830