Monday, March 7, 2016

1769: Hill's asthma panacea is honey

Sir John Hill was a physician and actor who lived from 1714-1775.  He raised bees and published a book in 1759 called "The Virtues of Honey."  It was the first book ever written about honey, although it focused on honey as a panacea for most diseases, particularly pulmonary disorders. (1, page 223)

Chapters four through eight of the book are devoted specifically to the effects of honey on thick phlegm, coughs, hoarseness, consumption and asthma. (2, page 511)

Basically, for all these ailments he recommends honey, honey and more honey.  In fact, he's such an ardent proponent for honey that you'd think he was trying to make money off the sale of it.

His chapter on consumption was rather short and provided little new information. His chapter on thick phlegm was rather long, although he did state that thick phlegm is a condition that usually only affects the elderly, and that it may end in a state of asthma.

His chapter on asthma provides us with a good picture of the general idea of how the medical community perceived asthma during this era, with, with the exception of honey, honey, and more honey as the remedy.

Hill describes two types of asthma: (3, page 25)
  • Real Asthma: It's very frequent, and no disease is more troublesome. Honey is a cure. 
  • Convulsive or Nervous Asthma: It's only called asthma because the symptoms are the same. It's a less common disorder. Honey will do nothing
He described asthma as...
...usually a disease of elderly people: and those who are subject to it have frequent returns, for all the methods in common use are calculated only for relief of the present fit, not for a lasting cure. Tis fit the old man know his case and danger, especially especially as this sure remedy is at hand; and as his life depends upon avoiding the other.
Hill's description of asthma as either real or nervous differed from many of his contemporaries who were increasingly supporting the idea that asthma was a nervous disorder.  (4, page 71)

And he also questioned the need to use remedies -- such as purging and bleeding, that made the sick feel worse.  He said:
In the extremity of a fit, the surgeon is called in to bleed the person, and this flattering practice is universal, because it gives immediate relief; but fits return often, and if bleeding is so frequently repeated, the constitution is destroyed. (3, page 26)
He said:
We seek from the remotest parts of the world, medicines of harsh and violent operations, for our relief in several disorders, under which we should never suffer, if we would use what the bee collects for us at our doors; and in as many others which tho' no care could make us escape, the same innocent and pleasant juice would cure... Africa is ransacked for its nauseous Ammoniacum to give breath in Asthmas, and in extreme cases the body must be bled by blisters for relief; when this pleasant and safe medicine answer all the purposes of the first, and save all the torments of the later application. (3, page 3-4)
He said there was a time in the past when honey was more often  used.  It was during this time that "disorders of the lungs and breast were unknown: consumptions never heard of, no obstruction of the viscera are seen; and of the long list of chronic diseases scarce one or two known." (3, pages 4-5)

He said some asthma is continuous and some only occur in fits, and honey will help with both.  He said:
"In both cases the difficulty of breathing goes off, when the person has spit up a tough phlegm; and this will always be promoted by the use of honey one of the most immediate and certain effects of which is, making a person cough loose and spit easy whatsoever matter it be that oppresses the lungs." (3, page 27)
He recommended that those who have "continual asthma should take Honey always night and morning; and everything should be sweetined with it, wherin others use sugar." (3, page 27)

For continuous asthma he also recommends for the asthmatic to...
  • Choose proper air (where he breathes easiest let him properly reside
  • Lie with his head high, and not be too much covered with cloaths
  • Avoid any posture of stooping or leaning forward; write upon a high desk, and read sitting upright
  • Use some exercise; but never too much, or too violent
  • (Enjoy) a temperate diet, early rising, and light suppers
  • Use honey constantly (3, pages 27-28)
The fits of occasional asthma tend to occur...
...usually about three in a month; they are more violent and last longer in summer than winter; and the more irregularly the person lives, always the worse they are. In all these cases, the sooner the person begins to spit the lighter and easier will be that fit. Therefore Honey should be continually taken to promote a natural tendency to this; and the approaches of the fit should be watched carefully, that it may be got down in larger doses as that comes on. If the person feels a tightness about the mouth of the stomach two hours after dinner, this is a first sign of its coming on, and he should immediately take a large spoonful of Honey: he should sit still, but upright; and in half an hour take a spoonful more. If the stomach feels swell'd and the person belches frequently, it is a continued sign of the fit gaining strength, and a straightness of the breast and lungs will soon follow. Once in two hours half a spoonful of honey is to be taken; for three times more. Then the person should go to bed and lie with his head high. Generally an hour or two the fit comes on with violence. He should then get up and continually be sucking down a little honey. (3, pages 28-29)
He continued:
If the honey does not take effect, the fit will continue two, three, or four days; the difficulty of breathing all the time continuing, and at the end of the time the person will spit up a foul matter, and grow well. In this case, the use of honey must be continued; several times a day taking a little: the person should eat no meat, nor drink any strong liquor, and by the use of honey it will thus go off.
Of course his prevention is the same as his remedy:  honey.  He said:
It will be first used when the disease is established in the constitution, it will by degrees produce the effect, shortening the fits, and gradually preventing them entirely.
Another remedy he thought was neglected since the introduction of chemical medicines was erysimum (wallflower), which was a diuretic.  He said it's a herb that could benefit asthma when mixed with honey.

If honey truly did prevent and cure most diseases, Hill would have gone down in history as one of the truly great physicians of all time.  Actually, if honey was a cure all, surely it would have been discovered in the ancient world.

  1. Rousseau, George S, "The Notorious Sir John Hill:  The Man Destroyed by Ambition in Era of Celebrity," 2012, U.S., Lehigh University Press
  2. Crane, Eva, "The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting," 1999, Great Britain, Gerald Duckworth and Company
  3. Hill, John, "The Virtues of Honey," 3rd edition, 1760, :London,
  4. Jackson, Mark, "Asthma: The Biography," 2009, New York, Oxford University Press
(Notes:  Other physicians during this time were Philip Stern and John Mudge.  They were busy inventing and patenting inhalers.  A post about them will be coming soon)

Further reading:
  1. Buchan, William, "Domestic Medicine: or, a Treaties on the Prevention and Cure of Disease by Regimen and Simple Medicines," 5th edition, 1776, London, Introduction and page 441-5
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