Dr. Pembroke’s Remedies – Blowing Vapours


Join Dr. J.D. Pembroke as he studies the many curious, ridiculous and sometimes downright confusing medical methods by which mankind has sought to heal itself with over the years.

It’s a beautiful, warm night. You’re walking along the Thames River, London, breathing in the not-quite-yet-fetid air drifting in from the sea. You’re enjoying a good pipe of tobacco, admiring the few visible stars, posturing some pleasant thoughts involving a lady’s elbows, when suddenly, your reverie is shattered by the sounds of floundering shouts emanating from the river.

My word! Someone is suffering from a potential pulmonary edema due to fluid asphyxiation! (otherwise known as drowning to the rest of you ingrates).

You rush to the waters edge and there indeed is such an event. A man is drowning! You pull him from the river, only a little concerned at the amount of water now saturating your new frock-coat, but alas, you feel no breath from the man’s blue lips. You are too late.

Or are you? Do you remember that you were carrying your pipe? All is not lost!

It may come as some surprise to the proletariat of today that there existed a peculiar method of reviving the unconscious, the near drowned, the comatose, known in polite circles as the Ineluctable Fumigatory Application of Toxicant Vapours via Rectal Endoscopy (the more or less official term). In less polite circles, it’s known as Blowing Smoke Up The Arse of a Complete Stranger but I can only hope my readership keeps better company than those who would use such a term.

vapors a
Good for lighting fires and… well, yes. Indeed.

(I have been reliably informed that ‘Blowing Smoke Up One’s Arse’ also has a literal definition, regarding the Application of Insincere Compliments, but given that insincere compliments are the essential lifeblood of Victorian existence, I feel it’s hardly needing of a phrase to elucidate such a concept.)

Up until the early nineteenth century, there lined the banks of the River Thames a kit containing a small set of bellows, keeping company with the flotation devices that a recently more conscientious London City Authority had installed. Upon location of a drowning victim (one needn’t walk very far for such a person – Londoners despise their city with such intensity they can’t kill themselves fast enough) one would light a small quantity of tobacco in the compartment, inflate the bellows, place the pipe end of the contraption against the rectal aperture… and blow.

It’s quite the popular technique, it would seem. Falling out of favor only in the early 1800’s, it originated with Native American people as an effective revival procedure for all manner of medical concerns. Drawing upon the rejuvenating and invigorating qualities of tobacco to stimulate the heart, the victim would be drawn back to the dubious benefits of consciousness in short fashion. Doubtless, the passage of several burning cinders of tobacco into the rectal cavity caused by vigorous bellowing, may also have had, er… stimulating qualities.vapors

There was even a society. The Institution for Affording Immediate Relief to Persons Apparently Dead From Drowning (I’m not joking), a peculiarly focused collection of gentlemen who eventually changed their name to the suspiciously titled Royal Humane Society, paid good money for anyone (4 guineas) who revived a drowning person – methods of which were at the hero’s discretion. And it should not be said without the aid of bellow kits that all options were out. One simply used what was available, as any good Christian might. Needless to say there were various different methods, and I’m sure that you would all use any means necessary to save a life, were life and death hanging in the balance. Such methods included, but were not limited to, copper tubing, the business end of a smoking pipe, and for the extremely brave, the mouth. Ahem.

vapors 2
“I say, Reginald…”
“No, Cecil. Absolutely not.”

To end this delightful lesson of the lengths people will go to follow a popular trend before applying critical thinking, consider this simple tale: In 1624 a lady by the name of Anne Greene was hung for the suspected death of a her newborn infant. After being hung, she was cut down, yet when the dissection of her body was to commence (a day later), she was found to be alive, having a weak but consistent pulse. She was resuscitated by means of being placed next to another woman, rubbing her limbs, hot cordial poured down her throat, and mostly importantly, the Ineluctable Fumigatory Application of Toxicant Vapours via Rectal Endoscopy, to ‘provide heat and warmth to her bowels’.

See? Foolproof. The lady received a pardon for her troubles, the case overruled due to an ‘intervention from God’. I sincerely hope she saw it the same way following her treatment.

Remember: Aspirate only. Never inhale. And pick their pockets. At this point, you’ve earned it.

This article was originally published in The Pandora Society on February 18th 2015.

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