Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum)
Tobacco was administered by medical practitioners in the 18th century to treat everything from colds to cholera but surprisingly it was tobacco smoke which they liked to use, as well as more conventional forms of the medicine.
In 1774, two London doctors, William Hawes and Thomas Cogan, formed a society called ‘The Institution for affording immediate Relief to Persons apparently dead, from drowning’. This later became the Royal Humane Society which we know today. In the 18th century, the society promoted the rescue of drowning people, and paid 4 guineas to anyone who successfully brought a drowning victim back to life.
At this time, tobacco was being imported to Britain from Virginia for chewing and smoking but also for using medically, especially in the form of smoke ‘clysters’ or enemas, as we call them today. Volunteer medical assistants began to use this procedure to treat half-drowned London citizens who were pulled from the River Thames! Tobacco resuscitation kits consisting of a pair of bellows and a tube were provided by the Humane Society and placed at various points along the river bank. The smoke was thought to accomplish two things – warming the drowned person and stimulating respiration.
This treatment soon became a fashion among doctors generally and they used it widely for headaches, respiratory failure, colds, hernias and colic as well as typhoid fever and cholera. However, in 1811, the English scientist Benjamin Brodie discovered that nicotine was toxic to the heart and it became unfashionable to prescribe tobacco smoke once more.
Dr Darwin was an enthusiast for the medicinal use of tobacco and gave a detailed account of how smoke should be administered in volume 2 of his book, Zoonomia. But he also advocated tobacco in other forms such as an essential oil, a decoction of the leaf and an infusion or tincture and applied them to a wide range of ailments. He had no time for those who chewed or smoked tobacco to excess, however, and referred to it in these cases as a ‘noxious drug’.