The Kiss Of Life

I am fortunate enough, so far at least, never to have been the recipient of the kiss of life or to have been called upon to perform it. Also known as mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, the person giving it presses their mouth against that of the person being assisted and blows air into their lungs. If you have been fished out of the water, you may be grateful that there is someone on hand who can perform it to such a level that it gets your lungs working again.

If you were rescued the water in the 18th century and required resuscitation, you would almost certainly have been subjected to a different experience. Knowledge of medicine and the workings of the human anatomy, of course, was not as advanced as it is today, but they had worked out that what was needed to treat what they termed an “apparent death” was warmth and stimulation. It was how they applied the stimulation that comes as a shock to us now.

Tobacco, as well as being consumed for “pleasure”, was considered to have medicinal properties, based on its ability to absorb moisture, warm the body, and provide stimulation. It was prescribed as a remedy for a range of ailments including headaches, respiratory failure, colds, hernias, abdominal cramps, typhoid, and cholera. The medics at the time considered that the anus offered a convenient and speedy way to get to vital organs by way of the intestinal tracts. The smoke from burning tobacco was applied by way of an enema or, to use their terminology, a glyster.

In 1686 Thomas Sydenham gave an early and glowing account of the procedure, when extolling the virtues of a strong purging glyster: “I know of none so strong and effectual as the smoke of tobacco, forced up through a large bladder into the bowels by an inverted pipe, which may be repeated after a short interval, if the former, by giving a stool, does not open a passage downwards”. In the early 18th century the Dutch had developed a process of providing rectal infusions of tobacco smoke as a form of respiratory stimulant to revive those who had fallen into their canals and waterways.

It may well have been practised at sea or at least had passed into the folk traditions of seafaring folk. A woman who had been fished out of the water was revived by her husband following the advice of a passing matelot, by inserting the stem of the sailor’s pipe into her rectum, covering the bowl with a piece of perforated paper and blowing hard. I hope the grateful couple bought the sailor a new pipe.

By the 1780s tobacco smoke enemas were so well-established as a means of resuscitation that the Royal Humane Society installed resuscitation kits, including smoke enemas, at various points along the River Thames. The Venetians also installed first-aid kits along their city’s waterways, included within their inventory was some tobacco and an instrument for injecting tobacco smoke into the anus. What this turned out to be in practice was a type of bellows, which had a dual purpose, to inflate the lungs via the mouth and to apply a tobacco smoke enema via the anus. I hope it was cleaned thoroughly after use.

The practice of applying tobacco smoke enemas as a way of reviving patients fell into disrepute during the early part of the 19th century. Benjamin Brodie, after carrying out experiments on animals, demonstrated, in 1811, that the principal active agent in tobacco, nicotine, was a cardiac poison capable of stopping the circulation of the blood. Blowing tobacco smoke up someone’s arse didn’t seem so bright an idea after that.

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