Object of Intrigue: London’s Life-Saving, Publicly Accessible Enema Kits

If you were unfortunate enough to drown in London during the mid- to late 18th century, further indignities likely awaited you. A member of the public may have attempted to revive you by furiously pumping tobacco smoke into your rectum. 

The tobacco smoke enema was one of the resuscitation techniques recommended by London’s Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned, an organization formed in 1774 with the aim of developing and administering lifesaving first-aid to those on death’s door. At the time, resuscitation was still a new and novel concept, and the idea of touching a dead person was thoroughly unappealing to most. To encourage resuscitation attempts, the Society’s founders, doctors William Hawes and Thomas Cogan,offered cash prizes to anyone who could prove they had brought someone back to life.

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or CPR, was still centuries away from common usage. Instead of pumping the chest or giving mouth-to-mouth to a drowning victim—a practice that prominent British doctor William Hunter called “vulgar” in 1776—rescuers employed a variety of other dubious methods when attempting to revive those with waterlogged lungs. Rubbing the skin, inflating the lungs via a tube inserted into the trachea, and bloodletting were among the approaches. The most creative technique, however, was rectal tobacco insufflation—piping smoke into the unconscious person’s intestines via a bellows inserted in the anus.

Read Atlas Obscura


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