May 07, 2010

blowing smoke...

As an invigorating footnote to the history of nicotine, there is a curious and discomfiting cultural backstory invoked when someone says “don’t blow smoke up my ass.”

In 1730, the wife of King George II thought it would be a good idea to dam the River Westbourne in London’s Hyde Park to make it and Kensington Gardens a more picturesque spot for perambulating and punting. What was formed was The Serpentine, a winding artificial lake in and on which people swam in summer, ice skated in winter, and drowned year-round (its most famous victim would be Percy Byshee Shelley’s pregnant wife who committed suicide there in 1816, which led the poet to wed the future author of Frankenstein two weeks later).

In 1773 an English doctor named William Hawes began a crusade to try to revive near-drowning victims by artificial means, even paying rescuers out of his own pocket to bring him bodies that were likely candidates for resuscitation. He and a group of like-minded heroes decided in 1774 to form the Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned (though the name was quickly changed to the Royal Humane Society) and the group eventually established nearly 300 depots with life-saving equipment across England—the first was on the north bank of The Serpentine.    

So how did the good doctors propose reviving “persons apparently dead”? The perhaps non-intuitive choice was a “smoke resuscitation kit” consisting of a bellows and all manner of nozzles to blow tobacco smoke up a victim’s rectum (primarily) or into the lungs. The “stimulating” properties of the smoke were intended to warm and revive victims from a watery slumber. These kits eventually lined the river Thames in London as well as ports and lakes across the kingdom and were as commonly seen near water as flotation devices are today. A particularly beautiful example developed by Evans & Co. Surgical Instrument Makers can still be seen at the Science Museum in London.

Though the efficacy of these tobacco enemas was considered somewhat dubious from the start, they remained popular for more than a century. However, eventually it was considered advisable to thwart such backdoor shenanigans, which is believed to have led to the emergence of the phrase “don’t blow smoke up my ass” to imply avoidance of any ineffectual and unhelpful gesture.

As for Dr. Hawes and the Royal Humane Society, they eventually stopped passing out financial rewards, but, even to this day, they still hand out medals, clasps, and parchments recognizing bravery in the rescue of people from mines, wells, and even "sewers where foul gas may endanger life."