One of the things I like to do in my spare time is go to Google books and peruse through old asthma books. It’s interesting to read what doctors used to recommend. In some cases, it’s quite horrifying.
Last year I studied Henry Hyde Salter’s remedies from his 1869 book “On Asthma.” This year I delved into an 1810 book called, “A Practical Inquiry into Disordered Respiration; Distinguishing the Species of Convulsive Asthma their Causes and Indications of Cure.” That mouthful alone is enough to trigger an attack.
You will likewise cringe when you read the following remedies. Yet you must also understand Bree’s primitive medical thinking. He believed the “excessive muscular action” that occurs with a disease like asthma is the bodies attempt to get rid of some peccant or irritating matter.
Hence, an asthma attack is the bodies’ attempt at purging, or, according to Dictionary.com, “getting rid of something impure or undesirable.”
Likewise, Hippocrates believed bad health is caused because of an imbalance of the four humours: yellow bile, black bile, phlegm and blood. For people to remain healthy, the four humours needed to be balanced.
Another thing to consider is that asthma back then often referred any disease or illness that caused shortness of breath, such as heart failure, bronchitis, etc.
So keep this in mind as you read on.
The following are some remedies you’d have to endure if you were a boy living with asthma in Bree’s time:
1. Bathing: Definitely not warm baths, because that may be “hurtful in every species of asthma.” Nope. What you would need to do is take a bath in cold water, preferably less than 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
2. Cathartics: To be blunt, this is medicine to make you poop. Since the lungs aren’t able to get rid of the evil, evidence shows that evacuating “a big load of bile” often does.
3. Emetics: To be blunt again, this is medicine to make you vomit. This was believed to be most useful when something in the food just eaten has “excited the paroxism.” Some doctors recommend monthly vomiting to prevent asthma, yet many boys back then might have been thankful that Bree didn’t recommend that.
4. Diaphoretics: This is medicine that makes you sweat. However, Bree notes the goal is to “promote gentle diaphoresis, but not sweating.”
5. Bleeding: You read that right. Ancient Roman physician Galen believed blood was the most dominant humour, and the one in most need of control. Bleeding was believed to relieve inflammation. It was first used for medical practices as far back as 3100 BC in Mesopotamia, and was still being used in the late 19th century.
6. Diuretics: Bree observed patients who let out a “great flow of urine from the kidneys” was observed by many doctors to make breathing easier for many asthmatics. We now know diuretics work great to help patients with heart failure when shortness of breath is caused by fluid in the lungs.
7. Antispasmotics: This would include medicine like opium, ether, valarium, cardamine, tobacco infusion, extract of henbane, fetid gums, alcohol and Belladona. These are medicines that “blunt the senses,” according to Dictionary.com. They also produce “euphoria and stupor.”
Opium and ether are the most useful, and are definitely beneficial after emetics or chathartics are used.
8. Expectorants: These are medicines that help you spit up phlegm or junk from your lungs. Ammoniacs work well, but must be given with opiates. Squills united with vinegar generally work well. Squills combined with henbane and nitric acid work well as both an expectorant and a sedative. Honey and sugar can be used, but aren’t so good for asthma. These medicines are good becasue they have a duo effect: removal of “offensive matters” in the stomach, and phlegm from the lungs.
9. Inhaling vapours: He describes how the idea of inhaling various herbs and resinous gums was introduced by Hippocrates. “He used herbs and nitre boiled with vinegar and oil, and directed the vapour of such boiling compositions to be drawn into the lungs through a proper pipe.” Frankincence and myrrth were also inhaled, and often mixed with arsenic. Another alternative is to breath the “vapours of hemlock leaves infused in boiling water.” Smoking tobacco also works here. He also described how fumigations of an arsenical mineral were done by the ancient Greeks.
10. Oxygen: Now perhaps he was getting somewhere here. Although his use of oxygen was not how we use it today. In one case he describes "oxygen would probably revive pain and inflammation by its stimulating properties. He also notes oxygen may help with both “irritation of phlegm” and with irritated bowels. Oxygen also gives the vessels and the heart more “vigour” in sending blood to the heart.
Perhaps I’m just a nerd, but I really enjoy reading this old stuff. Although much of it could make for good ficiton more so than science.
A Registered Respiratory Therapist and asthmatic