Wednesday 13 March 2013

The Tobacco Smoke Enema: Blowing smoke up my... what? Really?

Holy Christmas. Just what the heck did our forefathers believe? The Earth is flat? How many of us use an idiom over and over again without the slightest idea of where it came from? And where it came from usually means discovering that its original meaning is totally unexpected. Ha ha. Just what will those crazy ancestors of ours think of next? Wait, I mean what have they already thought of that I don't yet know anything about?

It would seem that the North American Indians introduced tobacco to Europeans for more than just smoking. They used it as a medicine including the introduction of smoke in the rectum to stimulate respiration. Various Europeans treated the substance as a panacea advocating it for the treatment of a host of ailments from headaches, intestinal worms, and stomach cramps to cancer, gout, and female diseases. It's another miracle drug thanks to, ah, our ignorance. While Sir Walter Raleigh popularized tobacco smoking, others bestowed upon this scourge of our health medicinal properties which make one scratch his head while asking, "What in heaven's name were they thinking?"

The English physician, Richard Mead (1673-1754), a then well-respected scholar of medicine, was apparently one of the first experts to recommend tobacco smoke enemas to resuscitate victims of drowning. Artificial respiration was discovered in the 1700's but along with it, came the idea that blowing smoke into the lungs could be beneficial as well as the rectum. The tobacco enema became commonplace in the medical profession in the late 1700's and the early 1800's and a report of 1835 even claimed it successfully treated cholera. The picture shows a tobacco smoke enema kit with a bellows for blowing smoke into the rectum.

While there were detractors from the beginning, including King James I (1566-1625), certain beliefs about the effectiveness of tobacco to protect against disease persisted into the 20th century. However it would seem that smoke enemas in Western medicine declined after 1811 when the English physiologist Benjamin Brodie (1783-1862) showed that the principal active agent in tobacco, nicotine, is a cardiac poison that can stop the circulation of blood. Smokers, of course, need not worry n'est-ce pas?

Urban Dictionary: blow smoke up one's ass
The tobacco enema was used to infuse tobacco smoke into a patient's rectum for various medical purposes, primarily the resuscitation of drowning victims. A rectal tube inserted into the anus was connected to a fumigator and bellows that forced the smoke towards the rectum. The warmth of the smoke was thought to promote respiration, but doubts about the credibility of tobacco enemas led to the popular phrase “Blow smoke up one’s ass.”

There are some dissenters among the etymologists. The BBC History Magazine points out how smoke has always been associated with deception as in magician and its research finds no references to smoke and posteriors before World War II, long after the tobacco bellows would have been forgotten. Their theory is that smoke has to do with obfuscation with the ass part added to make the expression coarse. True? False? Sometimes we may not know exactly how or why we collectively started to say something.

Up my ass?
Hmmm, just how common is this sort of thing? I've heard of enemas for constipation but I am now wondering if we collectively have some sort of anal fixation.

Colon cleansing
This practise dates back to Ancient Egypt and the prescientific idea that food remains in the colon and rots producing symptoms and general ill-health. Medical science has shown this is not true and that cleansing is not beneficial but potentially dangerous. Nature does a pretty a good job and we shouldn't go round messing with nature. Mom knows best.

Nevertheless, cleansing is a part of alternative medicine and the detoxification of the body. Science discounts these ideas but the believers persist in, well, believing.

Coffee enemas
Max Gerson, a German physician, developed his Gerson Therapy back in the 1920 claiming to be able to treat cancer amongst other maladies. Part of the procedure involved enemas of coffee. Science has disproven Dr. Gerson but faith lives on. LiveStrong tells the story of a Florida couple who give themselves anywhere from four to ten coffee enemas per day. The article quotes the woman as saying, "I love the way it makes me feel. It gives me a sense of euphoria." If the body can absorb substances in the rectum, what kind of caffeine rush does one get from a coffee enema?

Alcohol enemas
Back in September 2012, the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity at the University of Tennessee found itself in the headlines when a member ended up in emergency supposedly for butt chugging. Like me, I'm sure you're going to say, "I beg your pardon?"

The practice involves the introduction of alcohol directly in the rectum and as Wikipedia points out, this is pretty dangerous as it by-passes the body's defence mechanism of vomiting. Hmmm, the body doesn't necessarily need to use the stomach to absorb substances. How cute. If medicine tastes bad, I can always resort to... Eew! Gross-out!

Final Word
Looking back on this I'm sure we will all shake our heads but I would be quick to ask what people are going to think a couple of hundred years from now about what we currently believe. I am constantly amazed at how people adamantly and persistently espouse their beliefs about various aspects of health, nutrition, and life in general without any reproducible scientific verification. Personally I see over and over again that superstition, a belief not based on reason or knowledge, is as alive in today as it was during the days of the tobacco smoke enema and I am confident that our descendants are going to be having a good laugh at our expense when they read about what's considered common knowledge today.


Wikipedia: Tobacco smoke enema
The tobacco smoke enema, an insufflation of tobacco smoke into the rectum by enema, was a medical treatment employed by European physicians for a range of ailments.

Amazon: published 2006
The Smoke of the Gods: A Social History of Tobacco by Eric Burns
Eric Burns, who chronicled the social history of alcohol in "The Spirits of America" turns to tobacco in "The Smoke of the Gods". Ranging from ancient times to the present day, "The Smoke of the Gods" is a lively history of tobacco, especially in the United States. Although tobacco use is controversial in the U.S. today, Burns reminds us that this was not always the case. For centuries tobacco was generally thought to have medicinal and even spiritual value. Most of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were tobacco users or growers, or both. According to Burns, tobacco changed the very course of U.S. history, because its discovery caused the British to support Jamestown, its struggling New World colony. An entertaining and informative look at a subject that makes daily news headlines, "The Smoke of the Gods" is a history that is, well, quite addictive.

Wikipedia: Colon cleansing
No scientific evidence supports the alleged benefits of colon cleansing and it "has no known medical value and risks damage to the rectum or bowel." The bowel itself is "not dirty” and, unless disease or medication interfere, "nature does a fine job of clearing out wastes."

Wikipedia: Coffee enema
Coffee enemas are the enema-related procedure of inserting coffee into the anus to cleanse the rectum and large intestines. This procedure, although well documented, is considered by most medical authorities to be unproven, rash and potentially dangerous. ... Max Gerson proposed that coffee enemas had a positive effect.

Wikipedia: Max Gerson
Max Gerson (October 18, 1881 – March 8, 1959) was a German physician who developed the Gerson Therapy, an alternative dietary therapy, which he claimed could cure cancer and most chronic, degenerative diseases. Gerson described his approach in the book A Cancer Therapy: Results of 50 Cases. However, when Gerson's claims were examined by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), they found that his records lacked the basic information necessary to systematically evaluate his claims. The NCI concluded that his data showed no benefit from his treatment. The therapy is scientifically unsupported and potentially hazardous.

Wikipedia: Alcohol enema
An alcohol enema, colloquially known as butt-chugging, is the act of introducing alcohol into the rectum and colon via the anus. This method of alcohol consumption is dangerous because it leads to faster intoxication since the alcohol is absorbed directly into the bloodstream and neutralizes the body's ability to reject the toxin by vomiting.


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A Political Junkie said...

One learns something new everyday and, sometimes, it's not what you expect!

Going back even further, why is a pair of buttocks called an ass in the first place?

William Quincy Belle said...

ass from arse (Old English / German) meaning buttocks (Wiktionary)

buttocks probably from Old English buttuc ("end, short piece of land"), diminutive form of what is presumedly the Old English precursor of butt. (Wiktionary)