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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 33

Gleanings of the Past

Gleanings of the Past.

1. A shrewd old Divine suggesting to the Faculty a rational mode of treating fevers.

In Brown's Dictionary of the Bible (1815), among nuggets of solid theological gold, occurs the following medical gem (under Art. 'Vine'):—'When wine ferments excessively, and is in danger of rending the strongest cask, a little smoke of sulphur below it, or put into it, will stop it,' i.e., medically speaking, when blood becomes the page 49 seat of fever-poison, and its excessive fermentation threatens to rend the strongest constitution, a little sulphur smoke 'put into it' (as Dr. Alex. Fiddes has been doing in Jamaica) will stop the fever, and save the patient's life. All honour to Dr. Fiddes and others who have adopted this plan, who must surely confess to have been anticipated notwithstanding, and that the wholesome theology of John Brown of Haddington might have taught us medical lessons long ago, had we been reading less of trashy literature, and paid more attention to things worth knowing.

2. Lord Bacon on Sulphur. (See Bacon's Essays, Art. 'Friendship.')—'You may take Sarza to open the Liver; Steele to open the Spleene; Flowers of Sulphur for the Lungs; Castoreum for the Braine; But no Receipt openeth the Heart but a true Friend.'

3. Sulphur Fumigation in France in the beginning of this Century.—It appears that a Dr. Gales commenced about the year 1810 to treat patients by sulphureous fumigations in the hospital of St. Louis in Paris, whose experiments 'attracted the notice of Government, who granted him an exclusive privilege of this practice in the French capital, with a pension for life of 6000 francs.' Away with 'pensions' and 'exclusive privileges' in the advancement of science! But for their torpedo touch, deadening what they are meant to foster, sulphur might already have been master of the field, instead of only beginning to fight its battle as an innovation.—(See a translation of Dr. Gales's work by Rees Price, Esq., published in 1818.)

4. Nature providing 'Fumigating Baths' as well as 'Mineral Wells' ready to our hand.—'In the celebrated sulphur fumigating baths on the Lake of Agnano, near Naples, the sulphureous vapour rises spontaneously through apertures in the earth, from the bosom of an exhausted volcano, and is collected in apartments into which the patients enter. There the action of the vapour is similar to that of the artificial sulphureous fumigation. The value of this remedy therefore was known many years antecedent to our investigations, and its present mode of application appears to have originated at or about the same period in France and in Ireland.'—(From Dr. Arthur Clarke on 'Diseases of the Skin,' published in 1821.)

5. A Hint to the Sanitary Reformers of Genoa.—(See Dr. Young on Consumptive Diseases.)—An old medical author, called Paschetti, condemns the air of Genoa as 'unfavourable to the consumptive.' Because, among other reasons, 'the atmosphere of a cow-house almost suffocated a person, although there was only one cow!' but he approves of Baaden, because 'the sulphureous vapours of Baaden, exhaling from the bath, seem to have relieved some patients who were sent there from Vienna.'

6. One disease employed to cure another.—In the Continental Medical Journal for 1811, page 269, the following curious case is related :—A female, who had in some mode caught the 'itch,' applied to a quack, who cured her in three days. Very soon she had 'want of appetite, chlorosis, cough, and afterwards confirmed consumption.' Another practitioner condemned the quack's treatment as the cause, and page 50 ordered her former state of skin to be restored. She was deliberately re-infected; and after the free use of sulphur, externally and internally, the 'itch' and the 'consumption' disappeared together! Unfortunately for our cause, the doctor who relates this case adds, 'in this country such cases have not been much observed or credited.'

7. Modern 'Inhalers' and 'Spray-Producers' anticipated.—Dr. Mudge of London strongly recommends (1779) a 'balsam of sulphur' for any 'obstinate husky cough.' He seems not to have known the value of sulphur 'vapour,' but in all chest affections caused his patients to breathe from his 'inhaler' other vapours of a similar nature, especially the 'smoke of resin,' and 'vapour of tar,' matters strongly impregnated with carbolic acid, probably the only respirable parasiticide that can at all compete with sulphurous acid. 'For a catarrhous cough,' says he, 'the inhaler affords a certain cure in a single day, being used for twenty minutes or half an hour.' After this, why should the miracles of our modern instruments be called in question, and 'The Great Tar Cure brought to the Test' not tell us, whether some of these vapours should be revived in medicine? What is burning tar-barrels in seasons of epidemics but just disinfecting the lungs of a city, as Mudge's inhaler did the lungs of a man?—(See Dr. Mudge's Works, published in 1779.)

8. What is meant by an Innovation?—Ignorance only designates sulphur fumigation by such a term. Through the kindness of that veteran in the profession, Dr. Begbie, senior, of Edinburgh, who has furnished me with access to some old authors, I can demonstrate that the practice is more ancient than the Gnostic heresy, and that sulphur balsam, or sulphur fumes, formed the sheet-anchor relied on by nearly all the fathers of medicine in the treatment of chest affections from the remotest times. Thus, in the Journal de Médecine for 1763, Clapier relates a case of 'confirmed consumption' cured by living some time in a coal-mine. He attributes the benefit to the 'vapours of the sulphur,' and incidentally adds, 'which have long and justly been celebrated' in such complaints.

9. Audi alteram partem.—I find in my researches one foolish doctor, of the name of Juncker, anticipating modern sceptics by condemning the sulphurizings of his day as useless. So far from being able to cure consumption, etc., he maintains that 'sulphur is incapable of curing even a pustule of psora!' Perhaps his sulphur may have resembled what I lately heard about from a correspondent in a northern English county. This man wrote me that he was eager to try the 'Sulphur Cure,' but as he could not get a particle of sulphur that would burn, what was he to do? Ans. Send to Wolverhampton for some Sulphur Pastilles, and don't grudge the carriage!

10. Experience of the acute and ingenious Stahl.—This eminent physician (see his Works, 1704) thinks the flowers of sulphur safe in all chest affections, and says he has 'felt the benefit of inhaling the sulphureous fumes of crude antimony, having been cured by them of an obstinate cough in a few hours.'

11. Sydenham's treatment of Cough.—(See his Works, 1682).— page 51 Among other things, this immortal physician recommends the 'balsam of sulphur;' and in Sydenham's Cough Lozenges sulphur forms a principal ingredient.

12. One great Doctor almost scolding another.—The learned Willis attributes the exemption of some parts of England and Holland from consumption to the 'sulphureous smell' arising from their turf fires; and maintains that 'a sulphureous arsenical fumigation is like a balsam to the lungs.' According to Dr. Young, he prescribes sulphur for this disease 'in all possible forms.' And though Dr. Young admits that Willis has 'much learning, and labour, and anatomical accuracy,' yet he regrets that such an accurate and painstaking physician 'has produced little that is interesting respecting consumptive diseases except a continued panegyric on sulphur.'—(See Dr. Young on Consumptive Diseases, 1815.)

13. The Cough Lozenges of Poterius, Physician to the King of France.—In a case of 'confirmed consumption,' attended with diarrhoea, etc., Poterius professes to have effected a cure by five drachms balsam of sulphur every morning, a nostrum called his 'Antihectic,' every night, and sulphur lozenges and iris powder held constantly in the mouth. His commentator Hoffman explains the cure by supposing that 'the vapour of the lozenges was inhaled, and acted favourably on the lungs.'—(Works of Poterius, by Hoffman. Frankfort, 1698.)

14. Sulphur fumigation the orthodox treatment long before the Christian era.—An antiquary could extend this research almost ad infinitum, and from the fathers of medicine appeal to the grandfathers; leave such moderns as Sydenham and Harvey, John Hunter and Donald Munro, and ask the views of Hippocrates and Aristotle, Celsus and Paracelsus, Galen and Dioscorides. We select the opinion only of the last, because he was regarded by his contemporaries as the most accurate and comprehensive author on Medicine of his time; for which reason, probably, the clever and unprincipled Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra, made choice of him as her own physician. Dr. Young says (page 122), 'He recommends sulphur as useful in coughs and consumptions, either taken with eggs, or as a fumigation.' After this only think of some learned people scouting, as an 'innovation,' a practice in full force, and venerable with age, nineteen hundred years ago; and that all our boasted strides of medical science towards the curability of consumption, have resolved themselves at last into one stride backwards, to the treatment adopted in Cleopatra's bedchamber!

15. Concluding Note.—For most of these extracts I am indebted to Dr. Thomas Young on Consumptive Diseases, a work of great learning and research, and a perfect treasury of antiquarian lore. Nobody can fail to perceive from it that in bygone times sulphur has fought more battles in the sick-chamber than ever it has done as gunpowder in the field. This medical Wellington fired off his great gun of a volume in 1815, the very year of Waterloo; but the martial Wellington then eclipsed him,—it being more imposing to strike down page 52 tyranny in the battle-field than to combat disease in the quiet chambers of the sick. Thus, perhaps, did the curative powers of sulphur fall into neglect; but certain it is that though sulphurous acid medication is sneered at by some as emanating from certain obscure Æsculapian retreats, its abettors have no lack of courtly physicians in ancient London, France, and Egypt, to back them up.