Jewish penicillin: Fact, fiction and flavor

Did Bubbe know from neutrophils? Unlikely.

But Bubbe did know that a steaming bowl of chicken soup would probably cure what ails you. And even if it didn’t, it wouldn’t hurt. That too seems to be the consensus of the science community. Chicken soup, aka the Jewish penicillin, certainly won’t hurt and may just make you better.

How far do the curative powers go? According to, “Therapeutic observations were recorded as far back as 60 A.D. by Pedacius Dioscorides, an army surgeon under the Emperor Nero.”

As for the approbation of a doctor with a Jewish bubbe, that would have to wait several centuries. The medieval Jewish philosopher and physician Maimonides advised that “the meat taken should be that of hens or roosters and their broth should also be taken because this sort of fowl has virtue in rectifying corrupted humors.” He also said that chicken soup works on hemorrhoids, constipation, leprosy and respiratory illnesses like the common cold.

According to, a modern controversy dates to 1975 when “the editor of the journal Chest published the scientific spoof on uncontrolled studies entitled ‘Chicken Soup Rebound and Relapse of Pneumonia: Report of a Case.’ The patients suffered severe pneumonia requiring a thoracotomy and treatment with penicillin after he discontinued a course of self-treatment with chicken soup.” That sparked five years of “correspondence … expounding the virtues of chicken soup.”

For the definitive word in chicken soup research, most people now turn to the work of Dr. Stephen Rennard. In 2000, he began investigating the elixir for amusement value. Then the pulmonary specialist at the University of Nebraska’s Medical Center realized that soup could have genuine value. He theorized if soup can stop or reduce inflammation of upper tract common in colds, it might reduce the symptoms of a cold.

After administering some of his wife’s Grandma’s Chicken Soup along with various store-bought soups, he found that all soups were equally effective in reducing inflammation.

I highly recommend visiting Rennard’s site at It combines medical research, photos of the Rennard family in the kitchen and the recipe for Grandma’s Chicken Soup.

The CBC Television consumer program “Martketplace” has also taken a look at chicken soup’s possible medicinal value. They interviewed Rennard along with contagious disease specialist Dr. Allison McGeer, who says there is no scientific evidence to back the healing powers of chicken soup.

Two believers are Dr. Abraham Ohry and Jenni Tsafrir. The Israeli researchers asked the World Health Organization to declare chicken soup an “essential drug.” Ohry and Tsafrir’s rationale: “We feel certain that, despite the absence of significantly statistical evidence from scientific studies, chicken soup is here to stay as part of the armamentarium of traditional effective remedies … Whether it be a drug or not, chicken soup is essential.”

The curative powers of Jewish chicken soup have even been proven in court. Well, moot court, at least. In making his historic ruling that the broth deserves its reputation as the Jewish penicillin, Municipal Judge George Choppelas of the Court of Historical Review and Appeals “took due note of Alexander Fleming, the Scottish scientist credited with the discovery of penicillin. Civilization had to wait centuries for ‘something better’ than chicken soup, he said.”

Whatever the scientists (and the judges) determine, I don’t think anyone would disagree with Dr. Andrew Weil, who suggests that the true value of chicken soup goes beyond its ingredients. “The cultural implications of comfort, love and caring is captured in a mixture that fills your nose and warms your insides.”

But for all its amazing curative properties, there are some things chicken soup can’t do. I’ll leave the last word to author Arthur Naiman, who wrote, “The only ailment chicken soup can’t cure is neurotic dependence on one’s mother.”

Mark Mietkiewicz is a Toronto-based Internet producer who writes, lectures and teaches about Jewish content on the Web. He can be reached at [email protected]