Monday, December 5, 2016

1865?: Dr. Nelson's inhaler

Nelson Inhaler with glass mouthpiece
By the mid 19th century various methods were invented for the inhalation of medications through steam.  One such device was the Nelson inhaler, which ultimately became one of the most popular inhalation devices.

Spencer Thomson described the inhaler in his 1866 book "A dictionary of domestic medicine and household surgery."  He said:
Dr. Nelson's improved earthenware inhaler, an apparatus for the inhalation of  ether, chloroform, henbane, creosote, vinegar, etc., in affections of the throat and bronchial tubes, asthma, consumption, etc. (6, page lii)
John M. Scudder described it in his 1867 book "On the use of medicated inhalations, in the treatment of diseases of the respiratory organs."  He said:
"The most efficient apparatus for the inhalation either for simple steam or of medicated vapors... It is constructed of earthenware, and, in addition to its complete adaption to the purpose for which it is intended, possesses the triple recommendation of cleanliness, portability, and cheapness." (1, page 22)
The inhaler was manufactured by Maw & Son of Aldersgate St., which was later changed to Maw, Son, and Thompson.  Dr. Nelson's name with directions were on the side of the inhaler.  The inhaler was commonly sold and used for many years, and sold by various manufacturers who made slight adjustments to the design.  (2, page 258)

The Nelson inhaler was called "New and Improved," perhaps because of the unique design and that it was small and relatively portable compared to other inhalers, or tea pots.

Here is a news clip from the February 11, 1865, edition of the Medical Times and Gazette:  (3, page 160)



We have tried "Dr. Nelson's New Improved Earthenware Inhaler," and believe it to be a cheap and convenient instrument.  It serves both for simple hot water or for hot water medicated with the extracts of soothing plants such as are suitable for acute catarrh and quinsey, as well as for various medicinal substances which are tried in the advanced stages of phthisis, in spaspotic asthma, etc.  The instrument is easily cleaned, and cannot be misused.

Here is a description of the new inhaler from the February 11, 1865, edition of the Lancet. (5)

Diagram of Dr. Nelson's inhaler (5)
The utility of topical medication of the air-passages by the inhalation of the vapour of water impregnated with various substances extensively recognised by the profession. The absence of any simple and efficient apparatus for the purpose is often the only reason why the great relief which such applications are capable of affording is withheld from the patient. Medical men will find in the little inhaler of Dr. Nelson, made by S. Maw and Son, a very handy, cheap, simple, and effective apparatus. It answers very well all the purposes for which it is intended, and no hospital or infirmary ought to be without it. Its construction will be seen from the annexed woodcut. The hollow tube at B; and, having replaced the latter, inhale the vapour through the mouth-piece at A, the exhaled breath passing freely through the tube at C. For the inhalation of the vapour of hot water only, or the infusion of stramonium, hops, or other medicinal plants, the sponge in the tube need not be displaced." We recommend it for general adoption
Here is an advertisement from the British Medical Journal, December 17, 1870: (4)


Will be found a most efficient Apparatus for the inhalation of Vapour of Hot Water, either alone or impregnated with Ether, Choriform, Henbane, Creosote, Vinegar, etc., in affections of the Throat, and Bronchial Tubes, Asthma, Consumption, etc. 

Price to the trade, 3s 6d each; Retail, 5s 6d.

While it's no longer recommended by the medical community, the various versions of the Nelson Inhaler can still be found online.

  1. Scudder, John M, "On the use of medicated inhalations, in the treatment of diseases of the respiratory organs," 2nd edition, 1867, Cincinnati, Moorz, Wilstach & Baldwin
  2. Bennion, Elisabeth, "Antique Medical Instruments," 1980, California, University of California Press
  3. "Medical News: New Inventions: Nelson Inhaler," Medical Times and Gazette: A Journal of Medical Science, Literature, Criticism, and News," February 11, 1865, 2nd edition, London, John Churchill and Sons, page 160
  4. Hard, Ernest, editor, "Maw's double valved earthenware inhaler," British Medical Journal, The Journal of the British Medical Association, volume II, July-December, 1870, (December 24, page 672 of this publication)
  5. "New inventions in aid of the practice of medicine and surgery:  Dr. Nelson's Improved Earthenware Inhaler," Lancet: The Journal of British and Foreign medicine,"  1865, Volume I, Boston, Boston Medical Library, published by George Fall, ata the office of the "The Lancet" 423 Strand, page 152.  The diagram is also from page 152 of this resource.  
  6. Thomson, Spencer, "A dictionary of domestic medicine and household surgery."1866, London, Charles Griffin and Company
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