Air-Borne Diseases & Air Contamination | 18th Century Medicine


    About the author

    Edward St. Germain.
    Edward St. Germain

    Edward A. St. Germain created in 1996. He was an avid historian with a keen interest in the Revolutionary War and American culture and society in the 18th century. On this website, he created and collated a huge collection of articles, images, and other media pertaining to the American Revolution. Edward was also a Vietnam veteran, and his investigative skills led to a career as a private detective in later life.


      Editor’s note
      The following is a chapter from the book “Domestic Medicine” written by Dr. William Buchanan in 1785. It provides a fascinating insight into medical knowledge of the time, including the often haphazard and sometimes dangerous techniques used to treat certain injuries and illnesses in the 1700s. We have not edited this book chapter, and as a result it may contain old English spellings of certain words.


      UNWHOLESOME air is a very common cause of diseases. Few are aware of the danger arising from it. People generally pay some attention to what they eat and drink, but seldom regard what goes into the lungs, though the latter proves often more suddenly fatal than the former.

      AIR, as well as water, takes up parts of most bodies with which it comes into contact, and is often so replenished with those of a noxious quality, as to occasion immediate death. But such violent effects seldom happen, as people are generally on their guard against them. The less perceptible influences of bad air prove more generally hurtful to mankind; we shall therefore endeavour to point out some of these, and to shew from whence the danger chiefly arises.

      AIR may become noxious many ways. Whatever greatly alters its degree of heat, cold, moisture, &c. renders it unwholesome: For example, that which is too hot dissipates the watery parts of the blood, exalts the bile, and renders the whole humours adust and thick. Hence proceed bilious and inflammatory fevers, cholera morbus, &c. Very cold air obstructs the perspiration, constringes the solids, and condenses the fluids. It occasions rheumatisms, coughs, and catarrhs, with other diseases of the throat and breast. Air that is too moist destroys the elasticity or spring of the solids, induces phlegmatic or lax constitutions, and disposes the body to agues, or intermitting fevers, dropsies, &c.

      WHEREVER great numbers of people are crowded into one place, if the air has not a free current, it soon becomes unwholesome. Hence it is that delicate persons are so apt to turn sick or faint in crowded churches, assemblies, or any place where the air is injured by breathing, fires, candles, or the like.

      IN great cities so many things tend to pollute the air, that it is no wonder it proves so fatal to the inhabitants. The air in cities is not only breathed repeatedly over, but is likewise loaded with sulphur, smoke, and other exhalations, besides the vapours, continually arising from innumerable putrid substances, as dung hills, slaughter-houses, &c. All possible care should be taken to keep the streets of large towns open and wide, that the air may have a free current through them. They ought likewise to be kept very clean. Nothing tends more to pollute and contaminate the air of a city than dirty streets.

      IT is very common in this country to have church-yards in the middle of populous cities. Whether this be the effect of ancient superstition, or owing to the increase of such towns, is a matter of no consequence. Whatever gave rise to the custom, it is a bad one. lt is habit alone which reconciles us to these things; by means of which the most ridiculous, nay, pernicious customs, often become sacred. Certain it is, that thousands of putrid carcasses, so near the surface of the earth in a place where the air is confined, cannot fail to taint it; and that such air, when breathed into the lungs, must occasion diseases. In most eastern countries it was customary to bury the dead at some distance from any town. As this practice obtained among the Jews, the Greeks, and also the Romans, it is strange that the western parts of Europe should not have followed their example in a custom to be truly laudable.

      BURYING within churches is a practice still more detestable. The air in churches is seldom good, and the effluvia from putrid carcasses must render it still worse. Churches are commonly old buildings with arched roofs. They are seldom open above once a week, are never ventilated by fires nor open windows, and rarely kept clean. This occasions that damp, musty, unwholesome smell which one feels upon entering a church, and renders it a very unsafe place for the weak and valetudinary. These inconveniencies might, in a great measure, be obviated, by prohibiting all persons from burying within churches, by keeping them clean, and permitting a stream of fresh air to pass frequently through them, by opening opposite doors and windows.

      WHEREVER air stagnates long, it, becomes unwholesome. Hence the unhappy persons confined in jails not only contract malignant fevers themselves, but often communicate them to others. Nor are many of the holes, for we cannot call them houses, possessed by the poor in great towns, much better than jails. These low dirty habitations are the very lurking-places of bad air and contagious diseases. Such as live in them seldom enjoy good health; and commonly die young. In the choice of a house, those who have it in their power ought always to pay the greatest attention to open, free air.

      THE various methods which luxury has invented to make houses close and warm, contribute not a little to render them unwholesome. No house can be wholesome unless the air has a free passage through it. For which reason houses ought daily to be ventilated, by opening opposite windows, and admitting a current of fresh air into every room. Beds, instead of being made up as soon as people rise out of them, ought to be turned down, and exposed to the fresh air from the windows through the day. This would expel any noxious vapour, and could not fail to promote the health of the inhabitants.

      IN hospitals, jails, ships, &c. where that cannot be conveniently done, ventilators should be used. The method of expelling foul, and introducing fresh air, by means of ventilators, is a most salutary invention, and is indeed the most useful of all our modern medical improvements. It is capable of universal application, and is fraught with numerous advantages, both to those in health and sickness. In all places, where numerous numbers of people are crowded together, ventilation becomes absolutely necessary.

      AIR which stagnates in mines, wells, cellars, &c. is extremely noxious. That kind of air is to be avoided as the most deadly poison. It often kills almost as quickly as lightning. For this reason, people should be very cautious in opening cellars that have been long shut, or going down into deep wells, or pits, especially if they have have been kept close covered. We have daily accounts of persons who lose their lives by going down into deep wells and other places where the air stagnates; all these accidents might be prevented by only letting down a lighted candle before them, and stopping when they perceive it go out; yet this precaution, simple as it is, is seldom used.

      MANY people who have splendid houses chuse to sleep in small apartments. This conduct is very imprudent. A bed-chamber ought always to be well-aired; as it is generally occupied in the night only, when all doors and windows are shut. If a fire be kept in it, the danger from a small room becomes still greater. Numbers have been stifled when asleep by fire in a small apartment, which is always hurtful.

      THOSE who are obliged, on account of business, to spend the day in close towns, ought, if possible, to sleep in the country. Breathing free air in the night will, in some measure, make up for the want of it through the day. This practice would have a greater effect in preserving the health of citizens than is commonly imagined.

      DELICATE persons ought, as much as possible, to avoid the air of great towns. It is peculiarly hurtful to the asthmatic and consumptive. Such persons should avoid cities as they would do the plague. The hypochondriac are likewise much hurt by it. I have often seen persons so much afflicted with this malady while in town, that it seemed impossible for them to live, who, upon being removed to the country, were immediately relieved. The same observation holds with regard to nervous and hysteric women. Many people, indeed, have it not in their power to change their situation in quest of better air. All we can say to such persons is, that they should go as often abroad into the open air as they can, that they should admit fresh air frequently into their houses, and take care to keep them very clean.

      IT was necessary in former times, for safety, to surround cities, colleges, and even single houses, with high walls. These, by obstructing the free current of air, never fail to render such places damp and unwholesome. As such walls are now, in most parts of this country, become useless, they ought to be pulled down, and every method taken to admit a free passage to the air. Proper attention to AIR and CLEANLINESS would tend more to preserve the health of mankind, than all the endeavours of the faculty.

      SURROUNDING houses too closely with planting, or thick woods, likewise tends to render the air unwholesome. Wood not only obstructs the free current of the air, but sends forth great quantities of moist exhalations, which render it constantly damp. Wood is very agreeable at a proper distance from a house, but should never be planted too near it, especially in a flat country. Many of the gentlemen’s seats in England are rendered very unwholesome from the great quantity of wood which surrounds them.

      HOUSES situated in low marshy countries, or near large lakes of stagnating water, are likewise unwholesome. Waters which stagnate not only render the air damp, but load it with putrid exhalations, which produce the most dangerous and fatal diseases. Those who are obliged to inhabit marshy countries, ought to make choice of the dryest situations they can find, to live generously, and to pay the strictest regard to cleanliness.

      IF fresh air be necessary for those in health, it is still more so for the sick, who often lose their lives for want of it. The notion that sick people must be kept very hot, is so common, that one can hardly enter the chamber where a patient lies, without being ready to faint, by reason of the hot suffocating smell. How this must affect the sick any one may judge. No medicine is so beneficial to the sick as fresh air. It is the most reviving of all cordials, if it be administered with prudence. We are not, however, to throw open doors and windows at random upon the sick. Fresh air is to be let into the chamber gradually, and, if possible, by opening the windows of some other apartment.

      THE air of a sick person’s chamber may be greatly freshened, and the patient much revived, by sprinkling the floor, bed, &c. frequently with vinegar, juice of lemon, or any other strong vegetable acid.

      IN places where numbers of sick are crowded into the same house, or, which is often the case, into the same apartment, the frequent admission of fresh air becomes absolutely necessary. Infirmaries, hospitals, &c. are often rendered so noxious, for want of proper ventilation, that the sick run more hazard from them than from the disease. This is particularly the case when putrid fevers, dysenteries, and other infectious diseases prevail.

      PHYSICIANS, surgeons and others who attend hospitals, ought, for their own safety, to take care that they be properly ventilated. Such persons as are obliged to spend most of their time amongst the sick, run great hazard of being themselves infected when the air is bad. All hospitals, and places of reception for the sick, ought to have an open situation, at some distance from any great town, and such patients as labour under any infectious disease ought never to be suffered to come near the rest. A year seldom passes that we do not hear of some hospital physician or surgeon, having lost his life by an hospital fever, caught from his patients. For this they have themselves alone to blame, Their patients are either in an improper situation, or they are too careless with regard to their own conduct.

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