Monday, May 16, 2016

4000 B.C: Inhaling herbs was a great asthma remedy

Figure 1 -- Elliot's Asthma Cigarettes*
Growing up with hardluck asthma, I knew darn well the danger of tobacco smoke, or any other kind of smoke for that matter. So you can understand my amazement when I discovered asthmatics used to inhale smoke intentionally.

I made this discovery during a visit the Manistee County Historical Museum in Manistee, Michigan.  The museum is housed in the old A.H. Lyman Company building, which was a pharmacy until the mid 1950s when the building was donated.  In the back the old pharmacy shelves classic medicines.  On the box of one of these boxes was written: "Elliotts Asthma Cigarettes."  What I saw was similar to what you see figure 1.

Figure 2 -- Potter's Asthma Remedy
Photo by permission from (1)
My interest was piqued by this sight.  I thought:
If smoking was supposed to be so bad for asthma, why would any doctor recommend smoking for asthma?
I asked the museum curator if this was really a remedy for asthma, and he said that it was.  He said it was very common remedy during most of the 19th century.

It would be many years before I further investigated this, yet I never forgot about those asthma cigarettes.  My quest began in 2010, and it didn't take me long to find a ton of articles and advertisements in old newspapers and magazines and books about asthma cigarettes.

I learned that the cigarettes didn't contain tobacco, but crushed and dried herbs from the nightshade family of plants called solanaceae, which included datura strammonium, atropa belladonna, the hyoscyamus niger, Lobelia inflata and similar herbs such as Indian Hemp and Cannabis.

Such herbs contained an alkaloid called Atropine that caused mild bronchodilation, and in this way eased breathing.  The medicine also had a slight halucinogenic effect, and in this way took the edge off the feeling of air hunger by easing the mind.

So, while we think of cigarettes as hazardous, for most of history they were actually perceived as beneficial. This was, in fact, essentially the only way of inhaling medicine to obtain the greatest effect.

Figure 3 --
Kinsman's Asthma Cigarettes
It's difficult, if not impossible, to know exactly when mankind first discovered the benefits of smoking certain herbs. In fact, chances are pretty good that the first medicinal use of inhaled herbs had nothing to do with breathing and more to do with magic. 

The hallucinogenic effect allayed the mind of the medicine man so he could speak speak with the spirits or gods.  Yet other benefits must have been perceived, and at some point the quality of the medicine was shared with other members of the society. Yet even then it was probably prescribed for ailments other than asthma.

Still, at some point in the primitive world, or early on during the time civilizations were forming in Egypt and Mesopotamia, someone must have observed the medicine worked not just as a hallucinogenic but also as a mild bronchodilator, easing the mind and allowing for deeper inhalation.

In all likelihood, it occurred by chance as the herbs were tossed onto hot coals and incidental inhalation resulted in hallucinogenic effects.  Later on an asthmatic -- or someone suffering from dyspnea -- inhaled these fumes and felt relief.  This was an obvious gift from the medicine man, or more specifically, from the spirits or gods.

The first recordings of inhaling the herbs was around 4,000 B.C., which marked the dawn of the bronze age. Ancient city states of Sumeria and the empire of Egypt were in their infancy, and the discovery of papyrus and cuneiform soon allowed societies the ability to communicate from one generation to the next by writing, perhaps with a reed stick.

The Ancient Egyptians had plentiful access to atropa belladonna. It was a pungent smelling herb that grew to be about three feet high with oval shaped, pointed leaves that grew about three to six inches long with reddish or purplish flowers.   (1)

Folks experimented with this herb and discovered its poisonous effect. When too much was inhaled the person died. This gave the plant the reputation as the "deadly nightshade."

Egyptians soon learned the best recipe involved picking the leaves, stems and roots, drying them under the hot sun, crushing what was left, and using the byproduct in a variety of ways.

Egyptian women squirted drops in their eyes "for the allure given by large, black pupils: hence the name belladonna — ‘fine lady'." It made pretty eyes prettier and helped beautiful Egyptian women woo men. (1)

Medicine men, or early preist/physicians used it as a remedy for just about any respiratory ailment.

The dried and crushed herbs were tossed on bricks preheated on hot coals, and the smoke was inhaled to provide temporary breathing relief.  Over time a funnel was sometimes added to channel the smoke toward the patient's airway.

Inhaling the herb also provided a hallucinogenic effect, especially if enough was inhaled.  This may have been beneficial to the asthmatic as well, considering it helped take their minds of their trouble. Inhaling the smoke may have been beneficial to anyone suffering from a chronic illness, and was probably smoked regularly simply for recreational hallucinations.

However, there were risks, such as dry mouth, increased heart rate, dilated pupils, nausea and headache. If ingested or inhaled in high enough quantities, it may even cause death, hence the name deadly nightshade.

  1.  "Belladonna,",
  2. Picture used with permission from
  3. Jackson, Mark, "'Divine Stramonium': The Rise and Fall of Smoking for Asthma," Med Hist., 2010 April; 54(2): 171–194.
  1. Picture used with permission from

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