The medicinal value of tobacco was a hot topic among 18th physicians, qualified and otherwise. Many hailed the leaf as a wonder drug, capable of treating everything from epilepsy to dropsy.
Others were more sceptical. In 1720, a 32-page pamphlet, published anonymously in London, condemned the social and psychological effects of tobacco – yet hailed it as a treatment for some minor illnesses and afflictions. Tobacco could be effective as a laxative, claimed the author. Those who smoke or chew it, then swallow either “a little of the smoke” or “their spittle impregnated with its juice”, would soon “obtain two or three stools”.
Tobacco was also considered an effective treatment for abdominal pain, gripe and bowel obstructions. The 1720 pamphlet cites the case of a patient suffering “violent iliac passion” or “twisting of the guts”. He was cured of his sufferings after being given tobacco in an unusual fashion:
“[The patient was given] a decoction of it in urine, for a clyster (enema)… After having, with much difficulty, injected the clyster, the patient was constantly rolled upon the floor for some considerable time, till he felt a strong motion for a stool, at which time there was a copious discharge of hard excrements and wind, to the sudden relief of the tormented patient and the joy of his despairing friends.”
Later in the 1700s, William Buchan endorsed the use of tobacco as a laxative, though he preferred to apply it in the form of smoke, blown into the bowels with a pressure enema. Where medical help or specialist equipment was not available, Buchan advised readers that “the business may be done with a common tobacco pipe” – presumably one no longer used for smoking:
“The bowl of the pipe must be filled with tobacco, well kindled, and after the small tube has been introduced into the fundament, the smoke may be forced up by blowing through a piece of paper full of holes, wrapped around the mouth of the pipe…”