31 January 2012

Inhaled creosote as a medicine

This vintage advertisement is from 1898.  The schematic shows bronchiectasis in the base of both lungs.

Creosote, which we think of as something to soak railroad ties in, has a long history:
It is produced in some quantities from the burning of wood and coal in blast furnaces and fireplaces; commonly found inside chimney flues when the wood or coal burns incompletely, producing soot and tarry smoke, and is the compound responsible for the preservation and the flavor of meat in the process of smoking.

The name is derived from the Greek kréas (κρέας), meaning "flesh", and sōtēr (σωτήρ), meaning "preserver"... 
It starts off being used as a meat preservative:
Soon after it was discovered and recognized as the principle of meat smoking, wood-tar creosote became used as a replacement for the process. Several methods were used to apply the creosote. One was to dip the meat in pyroligneous acid or a water of diluted creosote... and within one hour the meat would have the same quality of that of traditionally smoked preparations... Another was to place the meat in a closed box, and place with it a few drops of creosote in a small bottle. Because of the volatility of the creosote, the atmosphere was filled with a vapor containing it, and it would cover the flesh...
Medical usage dates back to before the compound was isolated:
During antiquity, pitches and resins were used commonly as medicines. Pliny mentions a variety of tar-like substances being used as medicine... Given this history, and the anti-septic properties known to creosote, it became popular among physicians in the 19th century. A dilution of creosote in water was sold in pharmacies as Aqua creosoti... 
And re the lungs:
Creosote was suggested as a treatment for tuberculosis by Reichenbach as soon as 1833... Following that, that was a period of experimentation of different techniques and chemicals using creosote in tuberculosis, which lasted until about 1910, when radiation therapy looked to be a more promising treatment... Guaiacol, instead of a full creosote solution, was suggested by Hermann Sahli in 1887; he argued it had the active chemical of creosote and had the advantage of being of definite composition, and with less of a less unpleasant taste and odor...
Never heard of guaiacol?  A derivative product is advertised on television every day:
The guaifenesin... is still commonly used today as an expectorant, sold over the counter, and usually taken by mouth to assist the bringing up of phlegm from the airways in acute respiratory tract infections. Guaifenesin is a component of Mucinex, Robitussin DAC, Cheratussin DAC, Robitussin AC, Cheratussin AC, Benylin, DayQuil Mucous Control, Meltus, and Bidex 400.
As Paul Harvey once famously said:  "And now, you know the rest of the story."

Image from Paul. malon's Flickr photostream, via Adorevintage, and Fuck Yeah, Victorians!


  1. Replies
    1. Sure, just like a lot of current cold & flu remedies, most people got better within about a week of starting treatment.

  2. Carinogenic i would think,,Ithought there is a creosote bush.

  3. Dad (born in 1920) remembered being held over the roadmenders' tar vat when he had a cough.
    He also remembered that the top layer of the roads was made of pine blocks set on end in tar, then tarred over and that they burned fiercly during the Blitz. Years later I was working in Warren Street in London and saw the wood blocks still there under the tarmac. The roadmender said there were still a few around, though they were being removed as resurfacing happened.

    1. Your comment triggered my memory, and I found this old post -


  4. Health Canada recently (last year or so) released guidelines that basically admitted what many had already known for years: namely, that most cold remedies are nothing but quackery. They recommended not giving any cold medicines to children under the age of 5, and to essentially think twice about taking them yourself. The only thing we give our daughter (and only when she has a particularly stubborn cough that's keeping her from sleeping) is an herbal product from Boiron (http://boiron.ca/en/products/cough-cold/stodal/). Note that it doesn't claim to CURE colds, but merely to relieve the irritation caused by coughing and to help clear phlegm. It works like the charm!

    1. Yup, you can't cure colds. Paracetemol and decongestants provide temporary relief. There is one thing that is meant to work for coughs, which I belive is the active ingredient in Strepsils. Otherwise you're stuck with it. Though there is probably a lot of psychological comfort in some foul-tasting cough mixtures, especially if you had them as a child. The worse they taste, the better you feel probably!

    2. There is an absolutely wretched-tasting cough syrup sold here in Canada (don't know about the 'States) called Lambert.


      Its motto: "It tastes awful. And it works". And it does taste awful. Like a cross between pine tar and Lysol!

  5. Many years ago when I had a bad cough, my husband bought me some Creoturpin. I was afraid it would poison me, but it did help the cough.

  6. My father remembers my great grandmother smoking a pipe of something for her lungs. The children used to fight to see who would get to light it for her. I wonder if it could have been something like this.

    1. It's possible, but I would bet it was most likely something like "Asthmador", which had stramonium and belladonna as its active ingredients; it would have produced an anticholinergic effect similar to modern-day preparations like ipratropium (Atrovent).


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