Tobacco smoke enemas were used in the 18th century to treat everything from colds to cholera.
In 1746, one of the earliest documented references to a tobacco smoke enema involved a smoking pipe.
A woman had nearly drowned and was unconscious.
Her quick-thinking husband took a smoking pipe and shoved the stem into his wife’s rectum.
He then covered the other end of the pipe with his mouth and blew.
The shock of hot embers being blown up her rectum had the hoped-for effect.
Unsurprisingly, she woke up.
In the 1780s the Royal Humane Society installed resuscitation kits, including tobacco smoke enemas, along the River Thames.
The society paid 4 guineas (about $160 today) to anyone who successfully resuscitated someone apparently dead.
It was originally called, rather wonderfully, the Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned.
The rescuer would insert an enema tube with rubber tubing attachments into the victim and blow smoke you-know-where.
They mistakenly thought the smoke warmed the drowned person and stimulate respiration.
If the tobacco smoke enema failed, they tried artificial respiration!
To remind people what to do in this situation, 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.
Soon tobacco smoke enemas were the height of fashion—along with bloodletting—for European doctors.
Practitioners now had a go-to treatment for headaches, respiratory failure, colds, hernias, and abdominal cramps.
Soon tobacco smoke enemas were wafted around as a treatment for typhoid fever and even cholera.
Before bellows were included in the resuscitation kit, the results could be grim for the tobacco smoke blower.
If the blower accidentally inhaled, he could swallow rice water stools of the cholera flagellates.
He could die painfully from a combination of coughing, dehydration, and diarrhea.
Doubts about tobacco smoke enemas led to the phrase “blow smoke up one’s ass.”
King James I was scathing of its effectiveness, writing:
“[it] will not deigne to cure heere any other than cleanly and gentlemanly diseases.”
Others claimed that snuff made the brain sooty, and that old people shouldn’t smoke as they were naturally dried up anyway.
In 1811, scientist Ben Brodie discovered that nicotine was toxic to the heart, and literal tobacco smoke enemas became unfashionable.
Figuratively, “blowing smoke up someone’s ass” is a custom that’s alive and kicking.
Siobhan O’Shea is a freelance writer. She writes about pretty much everything but especially likes to bring readers’ attention to new tech, marketing, human behavior, and other oddities.