Category Archives: Katherine Foxhall

Tobacco Smoke Enemas in Eighteenth-Century Domestic Medicine

By Katherine Allen

Over the holiday I was working on a transcription of an eighteenth-century recipe book and came across an initially humorous recipe for treating ‘the winde & Collick’ (Wellcome, WMS 3500) which goes as follows:

And so is tobacco given in A pipe [when] it is well Lighted the small end to be oyled and put up into ye fundament and some body put the great end into their Mouth and blow the smoake up into the body this never fails to give ease to the winde collick you may put A small Glister pipe into the body and put the small end of the pipe Tobacco in the End of ye Glister pipe this way will Convey the Smoak into ye body very well. (fol. 87r.)

This surprising description of getting a companion’s assistance in administering the remedy has inspired me to write this post on the history of the familiar phrase ‘to blow smoke up one’s arse [ass]’ and the possible use of tobacco glisters in eighteenth-century domestic medicine.

Tobacco Plant. Image Credit:

Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) is a type of herb in the night shade family Solanaceae. It was smoked by indigenous peoples in the Americas as far back as 1000BC, but gained popularity in Europe and in global markets through trade in the sixteenth century. By the eighteenth century, tobacco was a popular luxury good in England and was increasingly consumed more for pleasure than medicinal treatment.

But how was tobacco used as medicine in the early modern era? Discussing the humoral and astrological qualities of tobacco, Nicholas Culpeper stated in an eighteenth-century version of his herbal that it was a hot and dry herb under the dominion of Mars. Tobacco was useful as an infusion for vomits, rheumatic pain, and piles. As a distilled oil, it was used for aching teeth however, ‘the distilled oil is of a poisonous nature; a drop of it taken inwardly will destroy a cat’. Culpeper also praised tobacco as an expectorant, a digestive aid, and a pesticide for vermin and for preventing plague.[1]

Those who are familiar with recipe collections will have surely come across at least one recipe using tobacco, and the most common recipe seems to have been a tobacco ointment. The Tyrrell Family collection has one such recipe which called for bruised tobacco leaved infused in red wine and then boiled in hog grease along with tobacco juice and beeswax.[2] Tobacco has astringent qualities and acts as a coagulant, and would have been an effective ingredient in salves for treating wounds. Another recipe stated that the tobacco salve ‘is an excellent Mundifier [cleanser] and healer of old sores, and Ulcers, if the sores be first washed with a little good brandy, which ought to be done, till the sores look fresh, which it will do in 3 or 4 dayes if this course be taken.’[3]

Wellcome, WMS 7822, fol. 11r. Image Credit: Wellcome Library

But, when and how did tobacco smoke enemas come into use and how did this treatment come to be in a household book of remedies? The phrase ‘to blow smoke up one’s arse’ means to get a rise or reaction out of someone, sometimes by giving them insincere compliments for attention. This phrase originates from the practice of using smoke enemas to resuscitate near-drowned victims via stimulation and it was first practiced by indigenous groups in North America.[4]

During the eighteenth century, tobacco smoke enemas were used by humane societies across Europe, including the Royal Humane Society in London, to resuscitate victims.[5] Culpeper included the tobacco enema under treatment advice for the inflammation of the intestines induced by colic or hernia and suggested that it ‘is of singular efficacy in obstinate stoppages of the bowels, for destroying those small worms called ascarids [roundworms], and for the recovery of persons apparently drowned.’[6] Physician Richard Mead was a proponent of the tobacco glister, using it to treat iatrogenic drowning caused by immersion therapy for hydrophobia and mania, and later Thomas Sydenham wrote a treatise on its use in bowel obstructions.[7] The use of this treatment declined in the early nineteenth century when it was affirmed that the nicotine found in tobacco can stop blood circulation if there is too much in the body, as in the case of an enema.[8] By the mid-nineteenth century the enemas were not used by the medical faculty.

Tobacco Pipe Enema circa 1773. Image Credit:

There is no author associated with the tobacco glister recipe found in MS 3500, but it is likely that this information was communicated to the compiler by a physician. This particular collection is dated 1688-1727 and was owned by a Mrs. Meade (and others), but it does not appear that she was related to Dr. Richard Mead. Several of the recipes are however directly attributed to Dr. Richard Lower for treating the young Nathaniel Meade, one of which is a purge dated the 1st of December, 1688.  There is also one recipe attributed to Dr. Needham on the page before the tobacco glister recipe.

Considering that tobacco enemas were only in vogue from the mid-eighteenth century to the early nineteenth century, it is unusual to find this medical advice in a domestic collection, let alone one dated from the early eighteenth century. As it is improbable that an eighteenth-century household would have had its own tobacco pipe for administering a glister for bowel complaints, I suspect that this recipe is an example of a physician’s remedies being copied into a domestic collection. More importantly, this is an example of how recipe books were continually evolving and being updated alongside innovations in the medical faculty. What started as a chuckle over an amusing recipe has led me to explore the history of this peculiar remedy from its use by the medical faculty to its indigenous origins; giving a whole new meaning for me to the phrase ‘blow smoke up one’s ass’.


[1] Nicholas Culpeper, Culpeper’s Family Physician; or Medical Herbal Enlarged. Vol. 2 (London, 1782). p. 134.

[2] Wellcome, WMS 7822. Anon [Tyrrell], ‘Collection of Medical and Cookery Receipts, 17thC-18thC’, fol. 11r.

[3] Wellcome, WMS 1796. Anon, ‘Collection of Cookery and Medical Receipts, c. 1685-c.1725’, fol. 64r.

[4] Raymond Hurt et al., The History of Cardiothoracic Surgery from Early Times (London: Parthenon, 1996). p. 120.

[5] Lawrence Ghislaine, ‘Tools of the Trade, Tobacco Smoke Enemas’ The Lancet vol. 359 issue. 9315 (April 2002): 1442.

[6] Culpeper, p. 281.

[7] Thomas Sydenham, ‘Schedula Monitoria, or an Essay on the Rise of a New Fever’ in Benjamin Rush, The works of Thomas Sydenham, M.D., on acute and chronic diseases: with their histories and modes of cure (Philadelphia: B & T Kite, 1809). p. 383.

[8] Ghislaine, 1442.

Gumpowder? A strange little recipe for sensitive teeth…

If you go to your bathroom and check the ingredients in your well-known brand of sensitive toothpaste, you may well find that the recipe contains the active ingredient potassium nitrate. Also known as saltpetre or nitre, this naturally occurring mineral is found in foods as a preservative (e.g. corned beef), and used in fertilizer, cigarettes, blood pressure medicines and fireworks. Since medieval times it has formed one of the main ingredients in gunpowder, and it is this connection that has also given potassium nitrate a long association with teeth and gums.

Many of the seventeenth and eighteenth century recipe books in the Wellcome Library’s manuscripts include treatments for gunpowder burns, but some also proposed that gunpowder could be therapeutic. Katherine Jones, Lady Ranelagh (sister to the famous chemist Robert Boyle), recommended a ‘little gunpowder’ applied in a linen cloth to ease toothache. On one page of Anne Brumwich’s recipe book (Wellcome MS 160, p.83) we can find nine recipes for toothache remedies written in two different hands. One, ‘An aproved medecine for ye toothake’ (approved meant that it worked) required gunpowder, aniseed water and lint, mingled together to ‘make a litell thing’.

Once the sufferer had picked their tooth very clean, the recipe instructed them to push the preparation into the tooth, taking care not to allow any of the mixture down the throat.

A century later, in A Treatise on the Scurvy (1795) David Paterson introduced his fellow naval surgeons to a wonderful, and apparently unknown remedy for scurvy: during a voyage in 1784, he claimed, he had restored the health of eighty sick seamen not with lemon juice, fresh fruit or vegetables, but with the potassium nitrate extracted from the gunpowder in his ship’s stores. Paterson’s remedy was soon forgotten, until in 1828, a desperate surgeon named Charles Cameron, having used up all his supplies of lemon juice, remembered Paterson’s recipe. Cameron was stranded in the calms near the equator and he was faced with a ship’s hospital full of scorbutic convicts, less than half way through the voyage to Australia. He extracted the nitre from the powder, dissolved some of it in vinegar, and mixed some more with vinegar and lime juice. He also added a little sugar (to taste?!) The effects were ‘miraculous’.

For the Navy, if Cameron was right, this was a money-saving opportunity; nitre was cheap and did not decompose over time. In the following decades surgeons continued to experiment with different remedies for scurvy until, in 1840, the Admiralty decided to perform a large-scale experiment to determine once and for all the best scurvy remedy. Over the next four years the surgeons of sixty ships transporting fifteen thousand convict men from Britain and Ireland to Australia received crystallised citric acid, potassium nitrate, and lemon juice. Their instructions clearly forbade the surgeons from trying to cause scurvy during the voyage but if the disease did appear, the patients were to be divided into three groups, each group receiving one of the remedies. Of course, the surgeons often had their own ideas, and often altered, combined and varyed the doses according to their own personal favoured recipe. So, while Surgeon Deas mixed some nitre with lime juice and some with citric acid, and felt that both mixtures were useful, Alexander Bryson gave each group the remedies mixed in a glass of wine, water and sugar. After many of the convicts developed severe scurvy, Bryson finally decided that potassium nitrate was ‘objectionable’. The surgeons had come to very different conclusions about the value of potassium nitrate but the results of the experiment were clear; potassium nitrate was abandoned as useless, lemon juice was in for good.

In the mid 1970s, dental researchers – in laboratories this time, rather than on ships – began to report a strange occurrence: mixing potassium nitrate with toothpaste seemed to reduce dental sensitivity in sufferers.  More work confirmed the compound’s beneficial effects, but the scientists still admitted that they were unclear why it should work; being soluble, it seemed that it should simply dissolve in water and wash out of the teeth at first rinse.

Jump forward again to the present, and potassium nitrate is often used as the active ingredient in products for sensitive teeth. So we have come a long way in medical understanding since women like Anne Brumwich stuffed aching teeth with gunpowder soaked lint, or Victorian naval surgeons dosed their convicts with nitre in the certainty that it helped with scurvy, and yet nitre has proved persistent: these earlier ideas about potassium nitrate’s ability to reduce not only the pain of toothache, but the symptoms of scurvy – a disease so commonly experienced in the mouth and gums – are worth wondering about.


Katherine Foxhall is a Wellcome Postdoctoral Researcher in History at King’s College London. Currently working on a history of migraine, Katherine has worked in the past on the history of migrant health, maritime quarantine, and illnesses including scurvy, cholera and typhus. Her book, Health, Medicine and the Sea: Australian Voyages, c. 1815- 1860 has recently been published with Manchester University Press.