Friday, 9 September 2016

Something in the air...

Inspired by the current exhibition in the Binks Display Wall on the 6th floor of the Main Library, this week Rebecca takes a closer look at the history of one of the items on display, the inhaler.

Inhalation of smoke and steam from therapeutic plants has been used to treat chest problems since ancient times, but in Britain it really grew in popularity from the nineteenth century. Not all of the inhalations were what we might expect; tobacco and anti-asthma cigarettes including anti-spasmodics such as stramonium were popular cures, despite what we now know about the dangers of smoking with regards to chest diseases, and folk cures for diseases such as whooping cough involved things like holding the head of the infected child in a hole in the ground to breath in the scent of the earth, getting them to breath the air in in gas works or coal mines, or breathing into the mouths of various animals.

A Dr Nelson's inhaler, held in the LHSA Object Collection.
Probably more effective, and certainly more pleasant, than breathing into a frog's mouth!
Inhalers first took off in the 1840s as a means of anaesthesia, using ether or chloroform. Soon, however, they were being used with different substances for the treatment of respiratory conditions, including phthisis (tuberculosis) and asthma. Dr Nelson’s inhaler, launched in the 1860s, is one of the most recognisable examples of the kinds of inhalers which were developed in this period. Boiling water is poured into the bowl of the ceramic inhaler, where it can be blended with soothing and medicinal substances. The resulting vapour is inhaled normally through a glass spout, taking the vapour directly into the lungs. Inhalations were quickly accepted as an effective treatment by the medical community, being formularized in the British Pharmacopoeia in 1867.

In the twentieth century, the ideas behind inhalation were further refined, leading to the clinical development of medicines which could act as bronchodilators and steroids when inhaled, and improved methods of delivering them. The Royal Victoria Dispensary occasionally recommended ‘inhalations’ for patients with breathing difficulties in the first half of the century, showing the continued popularity of this method of treatment. Asthma inhalers as we would recognise them today were first marketed in 1969, after a team led by Scottish pharmacologist Sir David Jack developed salbutamol, a bronchodilator, marketed as Ventolin.
Our inhaler on display as part of the Enhance, Access and Understand exhibition.

We have a Dr Nelson’s inhaler on display as part of an exhibition in the CRC, “Enhance, Access and Understand: The University of Edinburgh and the Wellcome Trust”, which runs until 31st October. This exhibition celebrates the recent Wellcome Trust Research Resources funded projects undertaken at the Centre for Research Collections, including the RVH v TB and Norman Dott case note cataloguing projects and the HIV/AIDs project at LHSA. A series of talks will accompany the exhibition.

The exhibition is free, and is open Monday – Friday, 9-5 on the 6th floor of the Main Library. The talks are also free to attend. For more information on the exhibition and all of the talks, see

LHSA staff will be delivering two talks: Ruth and Emily will be talking about the conservation of the HIV/AIDs collection on 21st September, and Louise will be giving a presentation about the case note cataloguing projects on the 19th October. It's free to attend, but you'll need to register on Eventbrite. Hope to see you there!


Hand, W.D. (2012) ‘Folk Medical Inhalants in Respiratory Disorders*’, Medical History, 12(2), pp. 153–163. doi: 10.1017/S002572730001303X.
Jackson, M. (2011) ‘“Divine Stramonium”: The Rise and Fall of Smoking for Asthma’, Medical History, 54(2), pp. 171–194. doi: 10.1017/S0025727300000235.
Elisabeth Bennion, Antique Medical Instruments, (1979) (

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