Navy Journal From 1801: Tobacco Smoke Saves Lives
Maria Cheng, AP Medical Writer
LONDON (AP) — For some 19th-century British navy surgeons, reviving men who nearly drowned after falling overboard required what is now a rather unorthodox treatment: tobacco smoke.
The treatment is documented in an 1801 journal, one of more than 1,000 navy medical officers' reports released Thursday by Britain's National Archives. From drunken mutinies to disease outbreaks to a walrus attack, the journals paint a colorful picture of 18th- and 19th-century ship life.
When sailor James Calloway, 40, was pulled from the sea after being underwater for at least 12 minutes, Dr. Ben Lara described him as having "the appearance of a corpse." Lara reports Calloway had tobacco smoke piped into his lungs, and after 45 minutes, Lara noticed "an obscure palpitation of (Calloway's) heart."
Shortly afterward, Calloway's pulse was detected, the smoke treatment was stopped and he was given some brandy.
"It all sounds pretty bad now, but they thought of tobacco smoke as a stimulant and that it might get the heart going again," said Daniel Gilfoyle, a diplomatic and colonial records specialist at the National Archives.
Despite its harmful side effects — from heart disease to lung cancer — using tobacco smoke to revive people wasn't entirely without merit, said Stephen Spiro, vice chair of the British Lung Foundation. "Any noxious chemical that irritates the airways might make somebody gasp or breathe," he said. "But tobacco is still pretty bad stuff."
Other dangers were more immediate. In an 1824 journal from a ship sailing in the Arctic, assistant surgeon William Leyson describes how the boat was attacked by a herd of walruses. Sailors warded them off by firing their muskets and beating the animals with their bayonets.
The journals also reveal some disturbing experiments that may have involved rape. On one ship in Portsmouth Harbour, a surgeon named D. Cowan tried to find out how the sexually transmitted diseases syphilis and gonorrhea were spread by having an officer establish repeated "connexions" with an infected young woman.
Navy surgeons also frequently sketched their patients, including the legs of scurvy-scarred sailors, broken limbs after drunken fights, and syphilis-infected eyeballs.
Treatments were largely limited to mercury compounds, hot compresses, alcohol like rum or brandy, and crude surgery without anesthesia.
Spiro said advances in medicine meant 21st-century health care might one day seem as archaic as the 19th-century tobacco smoke remedy. "We may be doing some pretty daft things, but we won't know that until somebody comes along with something better."