Chicken soup’s enduring legacy

On my 10th birthday in September 1939 I came down with a bad cold that turned into a bad earache. I remember crying when the family doctor looked at my ear and told my Mom he was going to ask the ear, nose, and throat specialist to look at me. The otolaryngologist arrived on his bicycle, as was the norm in my native Hungary in the late 1930s; hardly any doctors had cars. His black bag was in the basket attached to his handlebars. He chatted with my Mom for a few minutes, then he sat at the edge of my bed and asked me to sit up and dangle my feet at the bedside. He opened his bag, put on his head mirror, then pulled my ear back. I cried out! He said it would be just a moment. “Hold your mom’s hand!” he said loudly. I squeezed my mom’s hand and yelled, “OUCH!” as I felt a moment of sharp pain. Another second later I experienced great relief from ear pain as the purulent discharge started flowing out of my ear. My Grandma came up next to me with a cup, “Here it is dear, a little chicken soup,” she said. “It will make you feel good.” My tears were still flowing, but I felt relieved. Free of pain and drinking a bit of the soup, I muttering, “thank you,” to the doctor and to my Mom and Grandma.

Some 85 years later, on 1 January 2024, I woke with a drippy nose, a headache, and by noon I felt sick and feverish. Sure enough, I tested positive for COVID-19. Within a few hours a friend knocked on my door and left a bag of groceries with a note—“a few supplies for you, including some instant chicken soup, just add boiling water and you will get well soon!” Chicken soup became a thread between 1939 and 2024 in my health history. 

Do we consider chicken soup to be medicine? We certainly recommend it to our ill friends. 

Apparently, credit for the first mention of chicken soup as “medicine” goes to a Chinese document dating to second-century BC.[1] The soup is described as food that warms the body and has invigorating effects. Some 12 centuries later, philosopher and physician Moses Maimonides recommended the healing properties of chicken soup.[1] Another few hundred years later, in 2000, Rennard and associates studied the potential anti-inflammatory effect of chicken soup.[2] The study demonstrated a modest inhibitory effect on neutrophil migration, which might explain the mechanism for less inflammation and fewer “cold” symptoms. The study was not a clinical trial, and no conclusion could be drawn about the clinical effect.

Perhaps we are looking in the wrong direction for an explanation. It seems to me that chicken soup has benefits beyond any potential medical value. My grandmother had to buy the chicken and work in the kitchen to make the soup for me. My friends had to go to the store to get supplies and ingredients for me. To me, that represents a real psychosocial support, almost a ritual to express caring and concern, although the mechanism by which such expressions of affection and care would make sick people feel better is not clear. 

After endless cups of instant chicken soup, I recovered from my COVID infection. I still have three boxes of it left. Anyone up for some psychosocial support that works?
—George Szasz, CM, MD

1.    Schwarcz J. The right chemistry: Chicken soup’s label as ‘Jewish penicillin’ is more whimsy than fact. Montreal Gazette. 26 January 2024. Accessed 16 February 2024.
2.    Rennard SI, Kalil AC, Casaburi R. Chicken soup in the time of COVID. Chest 2020. doi:

This post has not been peer reviewed by the BCMJ Editorial Board.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Leave a Reply