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This Emergency Enema Kit Was the Defibrillator of the 18th Century

(Photo: Wellcome Images)

We have to act quickly! This person fell into the river and has drowned. But there's still time to save him. First, pull down his pants. Then insert this tube into his bottom. Next, light a cigar. Now pump the bellows!

According to Eighteenth Century British medicine, that it was possible to revive a person who had stopped breathing by blowing tobacco smoke up his rectum. Emergency enema kits like these were the defibrillators of the day: essential lifesaving tools designed by medical professionals. Ella Morton of Atlas Obscura writes:

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.

Occasionally the process worked. The medical journal The Lancet repeats a story from 1746:

A man's wife was pulled from the water apparently dead. Amid much conflicting advice, a passing sailor proffered his pipe and instructed the husband to insert the stem into his wife's rectum, cover the bowl with a piece of perforated paper, and ‘blow hard.’ Miraculously, the woman revived.


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