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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 33



Reflection I.—Is this man a crazed enthusiast, or a designing quack, or a rational being, who reasons like a philosopher, and details his cases like a medical man? Not an enthusiast certainly : for he proclaims his important message to the world with a seeming indifference perfectly distressing, and which would be highly reprehensible too, did we not remember that many pious doctors of divinity deliver a message of even greater weight, in a manner which suggests, 'There is the truth for you; believe it or not, as suits your fancy;' and that even the four Evangelists tell the story of their still more astonishing cures with equal coolness. Neither is he a quack : for with an honesty rare in such a tribe, he candidly confesses that some patients, far gone in consumption before the treatment began, actually died; that others took a whole week before showing decided improvement; that a third was only cured minus one lung, and though quite fit for ordinary work, had to pant and struggle when put to much exertion, like a man with a wooden leg hobbling at a race!

Reflection II.—Is his logic good? For my part I can find no flaw in it. To a non-medical reader it may appear surprising what similarity can exist between a horse's greasy heels and small-pox, or common 'itch' and Asiatic cholera; or what curious logic implies that if sulphur be a grand specific for the 'itch,' it should be equally infallible for cattle-plague, cholera, diphtheria and the like,—all resembling that humble eruption, he may think, in no earthly respect whatever. This, however, is a great mistake. If any sophism can resist this reasoning, I know not where it is to be found. For however these diseases may differ in some trifles, the grand essential point remains, that they all alike take their origin from a parasitic source. With less fatality, and less flourish of trumpets in some than others, the common parentage of all is minute microscopic living things, vegetable or animal, that grow and breed like other creatures. Diphtheria is as surely a French mushroom, vegetable and alive, as anything of the kind ever kicked aside by a human foot. Ergo, if sulphur kills or cures one parasite or fungus, why not another? The same poison which destroys a wasp is very likely to kill a flea. Thus the respectable and maligned malady, 'the itch,' promises to become the greatest instructor in the whole theory and practice of therapeutics which the world has ever seen!

Reflection III.—The rapidity of his cures rather strengthens this logic than the reverse. In some diseases it matters little whether their duration has been ten days or ten years. If the cause be a living thing, kill the cause, and the work is done. At first sight it page 12 does seem strange that an obstinate skin disease of some years' duration should disappear in a day or two; or that a pleuro-pneumonia, whose cannibal jaws had never lacked a good repast for a single month during eight or ten years, should be cleared from a byre, apparently for ever, in fifteen minutes.1 To a logician like Dr. Dewar this is not more surprising than that a man eighty years old should be as easily murdered as one of twenty. Though certainly his theory (apparently indisputable) of the essential similarity of all such diseases, high and low, sometimes leads to a novel jumbling of cases rather ludicrous. After due instructions on the way to clear rinderpest from a county, the next sentence may probably be how to manage a chilblain on the little finger. And in the midst of some thrilling pathetic stories about poor wasting human beings, snatched from the very jaws of consumption,—just as the reader is in the act of shedding tears of sympathetic joy, most opportunely may come a 'case' to dry them up again of 'a valuable turkey cock.' whose prospects its lady owner thought 'very desperate,' in spite of all the skill which could be brought to bear upon his illness,' being speedily restored to blooming sanity by similar means! The pamphlet is nothing the worse of this. Even a dwining hen, in testifying her gratitude for returning health, may cackle a lesson how to deal with a dwining boy.

Reflection IV.—May not some enigmas and curious freaks of chest diseases generally be explained on this principle? Look at asthma. A fit of asthma, of some days 'or weeks' duration, may come on in a moment, from various causes, nervous and stomachic; but very usually from the patient venturing into a dusty barn, smelling a little musty straw, entering a bedroom while the bed is being made, etc. Thus minute and invisible particles of organic impurity evidently get into the air-cells, and while sticking there produce their poisonous effects—aye and until gradually dissolved by gross expectoration clearing them away. By a change of air the cure of these attacks is sometimes as sudden as their invasion.

Illustration.—The lady of a colonel in the British army was once residing at S——, whose pure atmosphere and well-aired house seemed sufficiently salubrious. An attack of asthma came on so severe as to resist all treatment. In a fortnight she was reduced to such extreme weakness and difficulty of breathing, that, thinking she must die, I ordered, as a last resource, instant removal to Edinburgh, where she had been accustomed to breathe freely. This was resisted for several days, on the ground of utter weakness and inability for the journey; page 13 but matters getting worse, and death almost certain at any rate, at length she was lifted from bed into a carriage, conveyed to Thankerton Station, and thence to Edinburgh. While half-way to Edinburgh she was breathing as freely as ever in her life! and though still weak, never needed any further doctoring. Could the sulphurous smoke from the engine, especially in passing through the railway bridges, not partly account for this?

Second Illustration.—I have repeatedly had asthmatic patients who could not stand the pure and salubrious air of the country, but could always breathe with freedom in the very heart of smoky London. This used to astonish me. But may not the sulphur in the coals explain it all? The smoke of a large city is not so bad a thing as we have hitherto supposed. What with one disinfectant in the shape of carbon, and another in the shape of sulphur fumes, it is nothing but a great vapoury sheet spread by a kind Providence as a protecting mantle over the inhabitants, but for whose benignant influence, fever, plagues, throat and lung affections, might riot more abundantly than they do in such congregated masses of human beings.

Third Illustration.—Dr. Halliday Douglas mentions a case of a consumptive gentleman ordered by his London physician to Wales for change of scene. He could breathe freely only when the wind happened to be in a certain direction. This was at first a mystery, until it was discovered that the health-bringing wind from that direction had to blow over some large 'smelting furnaces' before it reached his dwelling.

Reflection V.—It is perfectly certain that many diseases—fevers, for example—originate in an impure state of blood. The blood has received a dose of poison, which is supposed to multiply itself and work in that fluid after the manner of a ferment. More than twenty years ago I used to sigh for some medicine which, by entering the blood, would destroy that ferment, and frequently mentioned the thing to my friend Dr. Smith, as the one great desideratum of our age. Even consumption itself is a blood disease of this nature, originating in that vital fluid, existing there, perhaps, for years, till, by some causes being fomented into power, it finally localizes itself in the lungs and bowels. Well, why (without experiment) should it be considered nonsense that sulphur fumes should have some virtue in incipient consumption, or some virtue in fevers especially, if morbific germs be fermenting in the blood, when, for anything we know, sulphurous acid may arrest fermentation within the body, similarly to what it can do without? That all sulphites have this action is a well-known truth, whether Pasteur's notion be illusory or no, that fermentation is essentially a breeding of countless parasitic germs. And what is a sulphite but sulphurous acid (i.e., sulphur fumes) united to a base?

What confirms me in this idea, is an announcement in this present month's number (October 1867) of the Edinburgh Medical Journal. In an article extracted from a Jamaica newspaper, we find an eminent physician, Dr. Alexander Fiddes, proclaiming to the whole profession, that in their future treatment of yellow fever (so ex- page 14 cessively fatal in that island) they must throw aside their calomel and quinine, etc., and confine themselves, in the way of medicine, to a dose of castor-oil to begin with, and then twenty-grain doses of the sulphite of soda, potash, or magnesia, every two or three hours. Apparently, without any knowledge of what is transpiring in Kirkcaldy, he attributes all the virtue to the sulphurous acid saturating the blood, destroying the ferment, and cutting short the fever; and then adds, that the astonishing results of this plan of treatment he will shortly prove to the profession by abundance of statistics! Query, If these sulphites turn out the most effectual way of dealing with yellow fever, why not equally with small-pox, scarlet fever, rheumatic, typhus, and many other fevers and diseases supposed equally to arise from poisoned blood? Truly, all ends of the earth seem conspiring to proclaim the duty of testing and attending to the 'great sulphur cure.'

Induced by all such considerations, I resolved to bring this plan of cure to the test; and without being acquainted personally either with Dr. Dewar, or any medical man in the world, who, to my knowledge, had tried it, I felt it something like a duty to solve the problem for myself; determined to proceed gently and cautiously at first, to feel my way by slow degrees, and in no instance thoughtlessly to tamper with human life. Why should Biggar be behind Kirkcaldy in anything? As for me, if I cannot starve my patients into health by gruel, fatten them into it by cod-liver oil, or poison them into it by a multiplicity of drugs,—why not choke them into health by sulphur fumes? My first experiment was tried exactly this day month (10th September), with some expectations of good results even from theory alone, but not without a shrewd suspicion that Biggar air or Biggar bungling would not quite come up to the mark of Kirkcaldy.

1 Witness the following from Dr. Dewar's pamphlet:—"Over pleuro-pneumonia, too, it would seem to enjoy an equal power of extinction. A large dairy in this immediate neighbourhood has, I have been informed, for nearly thirty years maintained a notorious character for mortality among its cows. The present tenant, during his occupancy of about eight years, had never been, up to the 1st November 1865, one whole month without having this disease among his stock; and within twelve months of that date he had buried sixteen cows, the last of these only three days before he began to fumigate. From that time till now his byres have been perfectly healthy. Another farmer told me last week that, after having been nearly ruined by deaths among his cows, he began daily fumigation, which he still keeps up He has not had a sick one since."