31 May 2019
Above: “English smoke in a city street and thereby causes a nuisance for women. Ets.” Rock Brothers & Payne. [between 1850 and 1859?]. Image from the Wellcome collection. Free to use with CC BY recognition.
The 31st May 2019 is the 32ndsecond World No Tobacco Day (WNTD). For 24 hours, a total abstinence from tobacco products will be encouraged by the World Health Organization, which established World No Tobacco Day in an effort to draw global attention to the harmful impact of the spread of tobacco smoke. The focus in 2019 will be on the effect that tobacco has on the lungs.
According to statistics published by the World Health Organization, tobacco still claims the lives of more than 7 million people each year, with 890,000 of these deaths resulting from non-smokers exposed to secondhand smoke.
During this celebration of tobacco abstinence, it may be appropriate for us to examine the history of tobacco use and attitudes toward its consumption, using the RCS Library collections.
Above: “A tobacco plant (Nicotiana tabacum), its flowers and seeds, surrounded by six scenes illustrating its use by man. Colored lithography, c. 1840” Image from the Wellcome collection. Free to use with CC BY recognition.
The use of tobacco has its origins in the Americas, where natives chewed and smoked the leaves. During the 16ste century AD, after the arrival of Europeans in the Americas, popular tobacco consumption spread rapidly.
In 2016, 21,500 tracts and pamphlets kept at the RCS Library were digitized and readily made available online as part of the UK Medical Heritage Library, with some of these focusing on the topic of tobacco.
It is not surprising that some authors of the pamphlets follow the more anticipated route of highlighting the benefits of tobacco. In Sniffing: The usefulness of bronchitis, consumption, etc. the author, John C. Murray, MD, highlights the benefits of snuff in a variety of medical treatments: the prevention of infectious diseases, colds and headaches, and “exciting breathing in the nearly drowned”.
It may come as a surprise to find that health workers even in 1857 warned of the potentially dangerous effects of tobacco, given the widespread popularity of tobacco during the 20ste century and, as highlighted in findings by the World Health Organization, even to this day.
A treaty, A dissertation on the use and abuse of tobacco, published in 1857 by Dr. Adam Clarke, contains some of the arguments against the consumption of tobacco and the various effects it may have on the body physically, with reference to the work of individuals such as Dr. Maynwaring in the Trading on scurvy. Dr Maynwaring allegedly wrote largely against the use of tobacco, mentioning that scurvy has become much more prevalent in nations since the introduction of tobacco. Dr. Clarke also encouraged surgeons and anatomists to dissect the bodies of ordinary smokers and snuff users to try to reveal the effects the substance had on the body.
Another treatise, The ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ of Civilization by George M Gould, MD, published in 1907, condemns tobacco – along with coffee and tea, alcohol, sugar, venereal diseases, the modern home and eye strain.
In the treaty, Gould draws particular attention to the impact that smoking has on the body, citing a study of the effect of smoking on students, concluding that “those who did not use tobacco were twenty percent longer than the smokers, twenty-five percent heavier and had sixty-six percent more lung capacity. ”Despite studies like this, Gould writes about the limited impact on the medical community, and writes about the opinions that promoted in the publication. The Practitioner.
Despite condemnation as far back as 1857, it was not until 1948, when Richard Doll and Austin Bradford Hill published their findings linking smoking to lung cancer, that the medical community began to further investigate the harmful effects of tobacco. Since then, stricter regulations have been implemented to try to deter smoking, including anti-tobacco advertising, tobacco taxation and a ban on smoking in public places.
For more information on World No Tobacco Day visit the World Health Organization.
Saffron Mackay, Library and Archives Assistant