In the 18th century a common practice in resuscitation was to blow tobacco smoke up the unconscious individual’s rear end. Before we discuss how this unusual practice came about, let us first look at early instances of tobacco being used for medicinal purposes.

Indigenous Culture and Tobacco:

Tobacco is derived from the leaves of the genus Nicotiana which is a part of the nightshade family (Mishra). Early explorers observed the important role that the crop played in indigenous societies. It was used for purposes related to religion, leisure, and health (Mishra). In 1529 a Spanish missionary, Bernadino de Sahagun, spoke with a group of Mexican physicians and learned about the many ways tobacco was used to heal the sick (Charlton). Many European publications around this time were circulating ideas about tobacco in relation to medicinal treatments, which were learned from encounters with outside societies (Charlton). Of course, this was a time before the hazardous effects of tobacco exposure was understood by medical professionals.

Smoke Enemas:

It was believed that a drowned person needed to be warmed and stimulated in order to be successfully resuscitated (Haynes). Physicians thought that the smoke would warm the body and stimulate the lungs, making it a viable remedy for victims of drowning. Of course, an unconscious person could not smoke a pipe themselves and needles were not yet invented, so the most viable option of getting the tobacco smoke into the body was to insert it through the rectum. This is where the smoke enema idea gets really crude. Early models required the smoke to be blown into the patient manually. Essentially a rectal probe attached to a tube was inserted into the sorry individual’s anus and the person attempting to resuscitate them would have to put their mouth on the tube and personally blow the smoke in. People began worrying that fecal matter could travel through the tube into the mouth of the blower. This disgusting issue was solved by the use of bellows (“Medical History”).

The Royal Humane Society:

Still in existence today, the Royal Humane Society was founded by William Hawes and Dr. Cogan (Coke). The duo focused on the importance of resuscitation and the development of the society allowed membership dues to fund their efforts (Coke). In the 18th century, the idea of resuscitation was controversial because many thought that doing so was interfering with the will of God (Coke). Despite the controversy, the Royal Humane Society set up resuscitation kits along the river Thames which included the tools necessary to perform a tobacco enema.

Smoke enema kit complete with a bellow. Image Credit: Nature’s Poisons.

Believe it or not, smoke enemas became fashionable. People were blowing smoke up their bums for headaches, colds, stomach aches, grogginess, you name it! Other than bleeding, tobacco provided physicians with another cure-it-all treatment. Tobacco was administered via enema, orally, and in salve concoctions. By the early 19th century, Daniel Legare explained in his formal dissertation that rectal insufflation was not valuable in resuscitation (“Medical History”). Doctors and scientists began exploring the effects of tobacco on the body. One example is the work of Ben Brodie, who in 1811, found that tobacco smoke seemed to negatively impact the heart (Haynes). As similar observations came out, the use of tobacco in medicine slowing fell out of popularity. Of course, we still had a lot to learn about the dangers of tobacco products as cigarettes were still being sold to patients in hospitals well into the 20th century.

Thank goodness we have replaced smoke enemas with CPR and chest compressions.

If that didn’t make you grateful for modern medicine then I don’t know what will!

Until Next Time

N.F.

Sources:

  • Charlton, Anne. “Medicinal uses of tobacco in history.” JRSM. June, 2004. Accessed 8 October, 2020. Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1079499/.
  • Coke, Diana. “The Royal Humane Society.” Journal of Medical Biography: ProQuest. London, Vol. 14 Issue 3, August, 2006. Accessed 8 October, 2020. Search.proquest.com/openview/59a7a2f5ca634678169128e47fc5f/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbi=45175.
  • Haynes, Sterling. “Special Feature: Tobacco Smoke Enemas.” BC Medical Journal. Vol 54, No 10, December, 2012, pages 496-497. Accessed 8 October, 2020. Bcmj.org/special-features/special-feature-tobacco-smoke-enemas.
  • “Medical History: The Exciting True Story of Blowing Smoke Up One’s Arse.” Natures Poisons. July, 2014. Accessed 8 October, 2020. Naturesposons.com/2014/07/29/the-exciting-history-of-blowing-smoke-up-ones-arse-tobacco-smoke-enema/.
  • Mishra, Shanu. “Tobacco: Its Historical, Cultural, Oral, and Periodontal Health Association.” PMC. June, 2013. Accessed 8 October, 2020. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3894096/.

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