Letter proves 18th century doctors knew harmful effects of smoking
Doctors were aware of the dangers of smoking as early as the 18th century, a newly discovered letter from Edinburgh has shown.
The warning was made by a medical student called William Adams who wrote to his father in 1799.
He graphically describes the dangers of tobacco long before the science that finally convinced the world that smoking was not good for health.
Adams had learned that his infirm mother had ignored his own advice and instead listened to an old woman who had told her to smoke a pipe every day.
Clearly frustrated with his mother’s refusal to follow his advice, he tells his father that she might as well “get drunk on opium”.
He wrote: “You will perceive that some foolish old woman has done more perhaps in half an hour than we have been able to do in months.”
He went on: “tobacco is a narcotic... it not only acts by its peculiar narcotic power but by smoking the saliva is secreted in greater quantity than usual & spit out by which means digestion is destroyed at least much impaired & when we recollect what an important office the stomach performs in the animal economy without whose due action the whole animal languishes...
“...she is at present in sufficient bad health without adding another source of indisposition – it is entirely impossible in the nature of things that tobacco can be of any service but must do harm in her complaints.
“She might as well follow the practice of the mahomedans and get drunk with opium...”
Adams, who was studying in Edinburgh, then quoted at length a case he knew in which tobacco had led to the death of a patient.
The case was about a woman who was “tormented with an affliction” and went to a surgeon of her acquaintance.
He proposed to give her an infusion of tobacco and wrote a recipe but confused ounces with drams.
He concluded: “The Apothecary who prepared the infusion unfortunately for the patient being a man of little or not medical knowledge made the infusion according to the recipe & sent it to the lady. It was given & she died in consequence of it.
“In giving her ounces instead of drachms she got seven times the quantity of tobacco she ought to have done...”
The letter shows that the dangers of tobacco were well known at the time, but it was not until well into the 20th century that scientists proved smoking caused lung cancer and increased the risk of heart disease.
The letter was discovered in an archive of documents and is being sold by Mullock’s auction house in Ludlow, Shropshire, on 27 September.
Richard Westwood-Brookes from the saleroom said: “It is interesting that the harmful effects of tobacco were apparently well known about in 1799.
“Whether the exact reasons for tobacco being harmful were completely understood is debatable, but clearly those in the medical profession knew.
“This is an interesting letter as it quotes another case in which a patient was killed because she was given too much tobacco.”
The letter is expected to fetch several hundred pounds.
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