Tobacco Enema Rescue Kit

Great Inventions, Medicine

Have you ever wondered where does the phrase “blowing smoke up your ass” come from? Unlike other sayings, this one is quite… literal. We have to go back a little bit further in time than usual, though. ⏳

In the eighteen century, it was quite common to attempt resuscitation of the “apparently drowned” by blowing tobacco smoke into the rectum, which was supposed to warm up the unlucky victim and stimulate their body. 🌬️ At the birth of the method, the smoke had to be blown through a tube by mouth, but, thankfully, later special bellows were introduced to help out with the task. 🤪

The Royal Humane Society of London (previously called The Institution for Affording Immediate Relief to Persons Apparently Dead from Drowning) provided tobacco smoke rescue kits which were distributed along the river Thames. 🌬️ At this point you may ask yourselves “Why didn’t they think about performing mouth-to-mouth”? As it turns out, the mouth-to-mouth method was known by many people, especially midwives, but was considered “vulgar” at the time. 🙄💀

Quackery is one of the books in which you can find this and many other morbid curiosities 🙂

Halsted, Hampton, and Rubber Gloves

Famous Victorians, Great Inventions, Medicine, Surgery

In 1889, Caroline Hampton was a talented young nurse working at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. She was the chief nurse in the medical team working with William Halsted, one of the founders of the hospital and a well-known surgeon. After a few months of assisting in the operating room, Caroline was on the verge of resigning from her position due to painful eczema and dermatitis she had developed as a result of following Halsted’s strict hygienic procedure that included disinfecting hands and instruments with multiple chemical solutions. The surgeon didn’t want to part with his favorite assistant, so he came up with a brilliant idea:

“In the winter of 1889 and 1890, I cannot recall the month, the nurse in charge of my operating-room complained that the solutions of mercuric chloride produced a dermatitis of her arms and hands. As she was an unusually efficient woman, I gave the matter my consideration and one day in New York requested the Goodyear Rubber Company to make as an experiment two pair of thin rubber gloves with gauntlets. On trial, these proved to be so satisfactory that additional gloves were ordered. (…) After a time the assistants became so accustomed to working in gloves that they also wore them as operators and would remark that they seemed to be less expert with the bare hands than with the gloved hands.” 🧤

The use of rubber gloves saved not only the nurse’s hands, but also patients’ health – the hospital reduced the post-op infection rates from 17% to 2%. A few years after Halsted introduced his invention, the gloves were improved and sterilized by our champion of the germ theory of disease – Joseph Lister. 🔬

The only thing the gloves didn’t save was the nurse’s position at the hospital. Caroline and William fell in love and got married in June of 1890. 👰💕 At that point, she had to resign from her job, as it was seen unfit for a married woman to continue to work. It is said that their marriage was quite successful, and they were seen as a pair of eccentrics, enjoying the company of their pets and unusual hobbies.

Halsted’s unusal life has been described in many books that could interest you, e.g., “Genius on the Edge” by Gerald Imber.

“A Christmas Tree with Lamps of Skulls”

Epidemiology, Medicine, Surgery

The San Francisco Call, December 27, I898
“A Christmas Tree with Lamps of Skulls”

The Vision That Appeared to a Demonstrator of Anatomy at Midnight.

It was 12 o’clock last Saturday night when Dr. W. O. Wllcox climbed the stairs of 21 Powell street to go to his room. It was just the time when graveyards yawn and give forth their dead; but the doctor had no reason to suppose the spirits of the air would haunt him in the privacy of his own chamber, so he opened the door without hesitation and stepped inside.

There was no need of striking alight. The room was illuminated by a score of prim and ghastly lamps, that clung to the green bangles of a Christmas tree standing upon a table. They were skulls, and the eyeless sockets flashed fire from within as they nodded their grisly heads to the swaying of the branches.

On the table under the bone-fruited tree were some of the doctor’s dissecting knives, gleaming balefully in the eye light from the skulls. There were crossed shinbones lying on the black tablecloth, white as the symbol of death on a pirate’s ensign, and more skulls— evidently windfalls from the boughs above. Between the jaws of one of these was a half-smoked cigarette, which the grinning head seemed to be thoroughly enjoying.

There were skeletons of hands, feet and other parts of the human bony building, mingled with the steel implements of surgical craft, and to many of these objects of cub-medico humor were attached cards bearing inscriptions as appropriate as witty.

By means of one of these inscriptions one skull complained bitterly of the unusually long time between drinks. Another, whose way in this world had probably strayed from the straight and narrow path, demanded ice and steam beer, while the head of a child declared it had been the victim of a mother’s neglect.

Dr. Wilcox is a demonstrator of anatomy in one of the colleges, and although the students of his class declare they never would do such a thing as desecrate a Christmas tree with the products of the grave, still the doctor is looking among them for the one who planned his pleasant Christmas surprise.

Source of the story: The San Francisco Call archive

Good Old Hospital Stink

Epidemiology, Medicine, Surgery

Last time we explored early 19th-century hospitals as the perfect breeding ground for insects and diseases. 🐜 In the pre-germ-theory world, dirty clothes, unwashed linens, festering wounds, and limited access to clean water were pretty standard for a hospital experience, followed by outbursts of such diseases like rubella or cholera. 💀 Unfortunately, many surgeons contributed to this situation by not washing their hands, not disinfecting surgical instruments, and … glorifying their blood-soaked frock coats and surgical aprons. 🩸

You see, it was believed that the dirtier the surgical attire, the more busy and successful its owner was. 💉 Some surgeons even wore clothes that had previously belonged to retired staff members as a sign of respect and keeping traditions alive. Those who wore “butcher’s aprons” mostly did so to protect their private, nice clothing and didn’t wash them anyway. As you can imagine, these pus- and blood-soaked, never-washed items were basically rotting and gave out a putrid smell which was lovingly referred to as “the good old hospital stink.” 🧀

The situation slowly began to change in the mid-19th century, when several doctors (e.g. Joseph Lister, Ignaz Semmelweis, Thomas Dent Mütter) tried to popularize washing the surgical attire and promoted the idea of cleanliness in general, for which they were often ridiculed. 🧼

To learn more about 19th century hospitals, check out Lindsey Fitzharris’ book The Butchering Art. A highly recommended read!

Bug-Catcher

Epidemiology, Medicine, Surgery

In the early 19th century, a visit to a hospital was a horrific experience. 😱 The sanitary regime was non-existent and the putrid smells of disease, dirty linens, and unwashed clothes penetrated the hospital building and its walls. While wealthier people were cared for in their own homes, the poor were forced to withstand awful hospital conditions, where the probability of dying was three to five times higher than in a household. (That’s why hospitals used to be called “houses of death”). 💀 

No wonder that a hospital environment was a perfect ground for spreading both diseases and … insects. 🐜 While the former were still believed to caused by miasma, the latter seemed to be easier to deal with. A hospital infested by cockroaches or lice could hire a specialist called a bug-catcher. In fact, a Chief Bug-Catcher would earn more than a surgeon, whose job at this time was still closer to a barber-surgeon than to a fully-respected medical profession.

I found this fantastic description of the bug-catcher profession in Lindsey Fitzharris’ book The Butchering Art. A highly recommended read!

Ambulance Balloons (?)

Great Inventions, Medicine

It is said that the air transport of patients began during the siege of Paris in 1870, where wounded soldiers were supposed to be evacuated to safety by hot air balloons. However, some scholars aren’t convinced that that’s what really happened and link this historical rumor to the popularity of Jules Verne’s stories about balloons. Regardless of the truth, by the end of the nineteenth century there were at least a couple of people who proposed air transportation of patients.

One of them was a Dutchman called M. de Mooy, who designed a system in which a stretcher could be suspended from a balloon, which in turn could be gently steered by horses in the right direction. So, was this idea ever really applied outside of experiments? I’d love to see some primary sources on the subject, let me know if you know more about balloon ambulances. 🙂 In the meantime, check out this Sawbones episode on ambulance history.

Also, would you like to be transported this way in case of an emergency?  

Everlasting Pill

Drugs, Medicine

Everlasting pill, also known as a perpetual pill, was a popular 19th-century medicine which was supposed to bring balance to the body’s humors by inducing purging. ⏳

The pills were made of metallic antimony, a highly poisonous substance that causes health effects similar to arsenic poisoning. 💀 Why was it called an “everlasting” pill? An antimony pill would pass through the gastric system practically intact, so people would retrieve it, clean it, and put away for later use. Antimony was also a valuable metal at the time, so it was quite common to keep it the family and hand it down from generation to generation. 👻

Check out this lovely book for more examples of useless medicine from the past: Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything.

Re-Animating Solar Tincture

Drugs, Medicine

💀 “RESTORATION of LIFE in CASES of SUDDEN DEATH.—For this benevolent purpose, Dr. SIBLY’s RE-ANIMATING SOLAR TINCTURE, supersedes every art and invention. In all circumstances of suicide, or sudden death, whether by blows, fits, falls, suffocation, strangulation, drowning, apoplexy, thunder and lightning, assassination, duelling, &c., immediate recourse should be had to this medicine, which will not fail to restore life, provided the organs and juices are in a fit disposition for it, which they undoubtedly are much oftener than is imagined.” 💀

This is how Dr. Sibly advertised his Solar Tincture ☀️ in the 1790s and early 19th century. A miracle cure that could cheat Death himself! 👻 While buying such a remedy seems ridiculous, many people could have been inclined to do so given the high mortality rate of the times, popular fear of being buried alive, and Sibly’s medical title (even though he had bought his degree). Another cure-all from Dr. Sibly’s shelf was the Lunar Tincture. 🌕 It was supposed to be the answer to all female problems, which according to Dr. Sibly were caused mainly by the lack of sex, too much sex, menstruation, lack of pregnancy, or menopause. You can find the original article on the Lunar Tincture in the Wellcome Collection archive but be prepared for constant eye-rolling. 🙄

More about the Solar Tincture in this Sawbones episode.

The Great Stink

Epidemiology, Everyday Life, Great Inventions, Medicine

The summer of 1858 was exceptionally hot for Londoners – the temperatures averaged 34–36 °C (93–97 °F) in the shade, reaching even 48 °C (118 °F) in the sun. This unbearable weather was however overshadowed by something even more unbearable: the Great Stink. 🤢

The source of this unbelievable stink was the Thames, which served as a sewer for all human, factory, and slaughterhouse waste in the area. As the London population doubled in the first half of the 19th century, so did the problems surrounding the river that served as the main source of “fresh” water. Apart from the offensive smells, Thames was also the source of cholera outbreaks and other diseases. The situation was dire and many people, including journalists and scientists, urged the government to take appropriate action even before the events of 1858.

In 1848 the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers was supposed to deal with the problem. A prominent engineer called Joseph Bazalgette created plans for a new sewerage system which was estimated to cost £5.4 million. These plans weren’t accepted by the government, which even suggested that cleaning up the river wasn’t really their problem, even though they had to use scented handkerchiefs, tobacco, and curtains covered with chloride of lime to protect themselves from the putrid smells in the Palace of Westminster. 💩

When the Great Stink of 1858 knocked at the House of Commons’ doors, there was no excuse to postpone dealing with it any longer. As the level of the river dropped because of the heatwave, “a huge pile of human waste was left piled up right next to Parliament.” Benjamin Disraeli described it as a “Stygian pool, reeking with ineffable and intolerable horrors” and proposed a bill supporting the modernization of the sewer system based on the Bazalgette’s plans. 🥰

👻👻👻
This comic was made thanks to Mateusz, who won the possibility of becoming the main character in a local charity event. Thanks! 💜

Don’t forget to check out this awesome video on the Great Stink

Got the Morbs!

Medicine

Got the morbs (Soc., 1880)
Temporary melancholia. Abstract noun coined from adjective morbid.

This fantastic phrase started a biweekly Patreon-exclusive series illustrating Victorian slang! All entries are taken from The Victorian Dictionary of Slang & Phrase by J. Redding Ware and I hope you’ll find these as interesting as I do 🥰 Do you have any favorite old-timey sayings?

💀💀💀💀

I’m changing the posting day for my regular Veinity Fair comics to Tuesday and, hopefully, I’ll be able to stick with that 😉👻

Visit me on Patreon!  🥰