When Doctors Literally “Blew Smoke Up Your Arse”

smoke-enema-kitWhen someone is “blowing smoke up your arse” today, it is a figure of speech that means that one person is complimenting another, insincerely most of the time, in order to inflate the ego of the individual being flattered.

Back in the late 1700s, however, doctors literally blew smoke up people’s rectums. Believe it or not, it was a general mainstream medical procedure used to, among many other things, resuscitate people who were otherwise presumed dead. In fact, it was such a commonly used resuscitation method for drowning victims particularly, that the equipment used in this procedure was hung alongside certain major waterways, such as along the River Thames (equipment courtesy of the Royal Humane Society). People frequenting waterways were expected to know the location of this equipment similar to modern times concerning the location of defibrillators.

Smoke was blown up the rectum by inserting a tube. This tube was connected to a fumigator and a bellows which when compressed forced smoke into the rectum. Sometimes a more direct route to the lungs was taken by forcing the smoke into the nose and mouth, but most physicians felt the rectal method was more effective. The nicotine in the tobacco was thought to stimulate the heart to beat stronger and faster, thus encouraging respiration. The smoke was also thought to warm the victim and dry out the person’s insides, removing excessive moisture.

Tobacco_smoke_enemaSo how did this all get started? The Native Americans were known to have used tobacco in a variety of ways, including treating various medical ailments, and the European doctors soon picked up on this and began advocating it for treatments for everything from headaches to cancer.

In 1745, Richard Mead was among the first known Westerners to suggest that administering tobacco via an enema was an effective way to resuscitate drowning victims.

By 1774, Doctors William Hawes and Thom­as Cogan, who practiced medicine in London, formed The Institution for Affording Immediate Relief to Persons Apparently Dead From Drowning. This group later became the Royal Hu­mane Society. Back in the 18th century, the society promoted the resuscitation of drowning people by paying four guineas (about £450 today by purchasing power, or $756) to anyone who was able to successfully revive a drowning victim.

Volunteers within the society soon began using the latest and greatest method of reviving such half-drowned individuals, via tobacco smoke enemas. Artificial respiration was used if the tobacco enema did not successfully revive them.  In order that people could easily remember what to do in these cases, in 1774 Dr. Houlston published a helpful little rhyme:

Tobacco glyster (enema), breathe and bleed.
Keep warm and rub till you succeed.
And spare no pains for what you do;
May one day be repaid to you.

The practice of using tobacco smoke enemas on drowning victims quickly spread as a popular way to introduce tobacco into the body to treat an array of other medical conditions including: headaches, hernias, respiratory ailments and abdominal cramps, among many other things. Tobacco enemas were even used to treat typhoid fever and during cholera outbreaks when patients were in the final stages of the illnesses.

In their most rudimentary form, tobacco smoke enemas were not always administered with the aide of bellows. Originally, the smoke was blown up the victim’s rectum with whatever was handy, such as a smoking pipe. Of course, such close contact wasn’t ideal and if the rescuer accidentally inhaled instead of blew, let’s just say things that one should not aspirate could be inhaled. If the person jerked around, mouth contact was also a risk, even more risky considering the person being administered too was sometimes diseased.

In fact, one of the earliest documented references of using such a tobacco enema to resuscitate someone came from someone using a smoking pipe in 1746.  In this case, the man’s wife had nearly drowned and was unconscious.  It was suggested that an emergency tobacco enema might revive her, at which point the husband of the woman took a pipe filled with burning tobacco, shoved the stem into his wife’s rectum and then covered the other end of the pipe with his mouth and blew.  As one would imagine, hot embers of tobacco being blown up her rectum had the intended effect and she was, indeed, revived.

This practice quickly spread, reaching its peak in the early 19th century before, in 1811, English scientist Ben Brodie via animal testing discovered that nicotine was toxic to the cardiac system. Over the next several decades, the popularity of literally “blowing smoke up someone’s arse” gradually became a thing of the past.  Figuratively, though, this practice is still alive and well.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Besides smoke enemas, another relatively popular way to administer tobacco to the body was via a water mixture enema.  In one account, this included administering a liquid tobacco enema, along with a chicken broth enema to a patient.
  • There are records of both Native Americans, such as the Catawba, and Europeans using tobacco smoke enemas to treat constipated horses.
  • Turpentine has been used medicinally since ancient times, mainly in topical home remedies, although it was sometimes used internally. Topically it has been used to treat abrasions, hemorrhoids and to treat lice infestations. When mixed with animal fat, it has been used as a chest rub or inhaler.
  • Bloodletting was used in mainstream medicine up until the late 19th century in some parts of the world. It was the most common medical procedure for almost 2000 years. Bloodletting is the withdrawal of often small quantities of blood from a patient to cure or prevent illness or disease. In the overwhelming majority of cases, bloodletting was historically harmful to patients, though because of loss of blood could in some cases temporarily make them feel euphoric, and, thus, better.
  • Trepanning involved boring a small hole into the skull to expose the dura mater (the outer membrane of the brain). This practice was believed to alleviate pressure and to treat health problems localized within the head. It was thought to cure epilepsy, migraines, and mental disorders and was a common “fix” for physical problems such as skull fractures. Needless to say, such internal exposure to airborne germs would often be fatal.
  • Speed was critical in an era before widespread anesthesia. Top surgeons like Robert Liston could amputate a limb in under a minute. In 1847, Liston was even recorded as having removed a 45 pound scrotal tumor in four minutes flat.
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30 comments

  • Thank you. Now I cannot get the image out of my head of these 17th century folk sticking bellows up people’s asses and being very proud of reviving their patients with the latest technology.

  • Is this where the expression came from? Also if the tobacco method worked for drowners, why isn’t it used today? Better methods?
    Sorry if my questions are stupid

  • Once a friend said “those idiots are the likes of men who think they can revive dead by blowing to his a…” so i just understand that, even if we don’t realise. our language pass knowledge about historical facts and failures.

  • Quoting [cleanly] the beginning of the article:
    “When someone is ‘blowing smoke up your @*$[e]’ today, it is a figure of speech that means that one person is complimenting another, insincerely most of the time, in order to inflate the ego of the individual being flattered.”

    I was surprised that the author assumed that this was a well-known expression throughout the English-speaking world. Being from a nation of the former British Empire, she apparently does not know that the expression is rarely, if ever, heard in some anglophone nations, including the United States. In 65 years of living on the U.S.’s east coast, west coast, and midwestern region — and of traveling to all fifty states, six Canadian provinces, and about thirty other nations — I am happy to say that I have NEVER heard anyone use this disgusting expression in my presence (not even a version that would include the U.S.’s three-letter form of the vulgar anatomical word).

    Of course, this whole subject is worthless to us today — and inappropriate to be mentioned (much less focused on at great length, as it is above) at “Today I Found Out,” where many young, impressionable children and “classy” elderly people come to read and learn. Sadly, this article is yet another example, among many, of the owner’s and writers’ obsession with matters dealing with sex-related behaviors and elimination of bodily wastes. It appears that these folks’ minds are frequently “in the gutter” and that they feel compelled to attract others to their base way of life. As the saying goes: “Misery loves company.” How sad!

    • Well, I’ll start by saying that as a Canadian who has lived all 30 of my years in Saskatchewan, I’ve heard the saying a lot. My grandma used to tell us we were “blowing smoke up her ass” when we were sweet-talking her into something…she said “ass” and everything! Though in hindsight, I’m quite sure it was the *only* “bad” word we ever heard her say until we were a bit older (or helping her build a fence…it’s hard to watch your language when dealing with barbed wire, fence posts and four grandkids who aren’t listening!)

      As for the quality of the articles here, I think you’re picking and choosing. The “red herring” one yesterday was interesting, informative and nowhere near the “gutter.”

      Not to mention the fact that there is no such thing as “useless” – while the procedure itself may be useless today, learning about obsolete procedures IS informative – if nothing else, it ensures we remember that someone already tried this (and other) stupid things. It’s also good to remember that at the time, this was hi-tech, the best they understood to help drowning victims. It’s not “useless” to know that they actually tried a variety of things before CPR. Our ancestors failings have ensured that today we have both the best and the worst of the collective knowledge of our ancestors – you learn a lot more from the failures than the successes.

      As for children – there’s only one way to get them interested in history, and that’s by offering them interesting stories. Know what 6-7 year olds think is interesting? Sadly, it’s butts, farts, poop, etc. My daughter is the “girliest” girl you’ve ever met, and even she loves fart jokes! The idea that dinosaur poop can, and does, fossilize has encouraged my kid to learn more about dinosaurs and how other parts of dinosaurs fossilized. Kids like gross things, gross things are interesting. Whether it’s a dead jellyfish on the beach or a pile of fossilized dino poop, kids love gross things! If it takes a story about people literally blowing smoke up other people’s butts to get a kid interested in history, then so be it! All those kids interested in poop now will one day be interested in biology and other sciences, plumbing and other trades, or sewage treatment and city planning – all things we NEED our children to grow up to be. Life is gross, life has poop, and butts, and farts. Pretending these things *didn’t* happen, historically, is stupid. Sex-related behaviours and bodily waste happen – they happened then, and they happen now. No one should be ashamed of perfectly normal behaviours. And they are normal. You don’t want to read about “blowing smoke up your ass” then don’t click the damn link! As for kids – there is a HELL of a lot worse things they can click on than a factual article about the history of literally blowing smoke up someone’s ass. Personally I really, really hope that *this* article is one of the first results…can you imagine what else a kid could find searching for “blowing smoke up someone’s ass”? I can, and I’d rather this be what they end up looking at…at least they’ll learn something useful, even if it is just “literally blowing smoke up someone’s ass doesn’t do anything, really.”

      And I don’t know if you’ve noticed but the Internet, as a whole, isn’t exactly what my grandma would call “polite company.” The Internet is basically you and your buddies at the bar, talking about all the things one doesn’t in “polite company.”

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