Project information 

Tobacco arrived in Western Europe in the 16th century and its use was widespread by the 17th century. Millions of kilograms were imported into Spain, England, and the Netherlands mainly to be used as snuff, in pipes, chewed, or smoked as cigarillos and cigars. The use of the plant permeated all strata of society and the various products were used by men, women and children. 

This project explores and historically contextualises disease patterns in populations both prior to and after the arrival of tobacco in three Western European countries. It does this through four subprojects: Palaeopathology, Metabolomics, Biomolecular analyses, and Historical contextualisation. Here we assess English skeletal material as an example of mostly pipe using individuals living in a heavily industrialised environment, Dutch material as mainly pipe using in non-industrialised and rural communities, and finally material from Seville, Southern Spain, which held the monopoly in early tobacco trade and was a key producer of snuff. The project then aims to connect this history to the present through interdisciplinary collaborations and events.

An experimental dissertation on the chemical and medical properties of the nicotiana tabacum of Linnaeus, commonly known by the name of tobacco / By Edward Brailsford -1856.
Wellcome Collection


Smoking and tobacco use today is known to be a direct cause of disease and a highly significant aggravating risk factor for many others. This not only includes conditions with well-established links to tobacco use, such as cardiovascular, respiratory diseases and cancers, but also other ailments that can have long-term health repercussions, including dental disease, vitamin deficiencies, osteoporosis and others. Tobacco use in populations also has a dramatic impact on the growth and development of infants and children, with possible life-long consequences. This subproject will record skeletal evidence of respiratory disease, with a special focus on tuberculosis, cancer and neoplasms, dental disease, and vitamin deficiencies, and we will record stature and body proportions tracking growth. This subproject will also focus on improving recording methods for identifying tobacco pipe use through microscopy of the dentition. 

Two young boys posing with cigarettes. Photographic postcard by A. Caggiano, 190-.
Wellcome Collection

A tobacco plant (Nicotiana tabacum), its flowers and seeds, bordered by six scenes illustrating its use by man. Coloured lithograph, c. 1840.
Wellcome Collection

Detecting tobacco use
(metabolomics and residue analyses)

One of the major impediments to studying tobacco and disease in the past is the ability to detect who used and was exposed to tobacco. While pipe notches can help us identify chronic pipe users, we are unable to macroscopically identify those that used infrequently, or those that used tobacco through other methods. This subproject will develop a metabolomics based approach for detecting tobacco exposure which can be used with other markers of tobacco use to provide a tobacco use variable for individuals and populations. Through this we will produce the first direct information about who was using tobacco and in what ways for each community studied. This will significantly improve our knowledge of the social use of tobacco.

Biomolecular analyses

This project has multiple aims, the first is to assess how and whether the introduction of tobacco altered the genetic and proteomic components of the oral microbiome and how this relates to changing patterns of dental disease and health. Second, genetic testing will also be used to help identify and confirm cases of infectious disease that are not diagnosable from visual observation of the skeleton; many diseases do not affect the skeleton, or the traces they leave are quite indistinct. This will help improve our understanding of the relationship between tobacco use and disease presence. 

TTobacco jar, England, 1790-1850, Science Museum, London
Wellcome Collection

Tobacco habit advert in ‘Book of Stamps…. IF you love a good joke take “punch”
Wellcome Collection

Integrated Analysis and Historical Contextualisation

The project will use an integrated database to allow testing for differences in disease patterns between groups based on the tobacco use variable created in the metabolomics and palaeopathology subprojects. Comparisons will be made between pre-tobacco and post-tobacco using groups, and between the populations with differing degrees of urbanisation and industrialisation, tobacco use types and status. Changes in disease patterns will be contextualised using evidence from economic data, medical and social attitudes on tobacco use, and political sources for each region. 

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