Mouth-to-Mouth Banned in the Regency

Perhaps abandoned is a more appropriate description of the fate of this live-saving practice by the medical community in the early years of the Regency.

Surely I must be mistaken, as mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, that which the English call mouth-to-mouth ventilation, was not known until the mid-twentieth century? Sadly, there is no mistake. How this happened …

Today in Britain, mouth-to-mouth ventilation is also called the kiss of life. And most people think this life-saving "kiss" was discovered in the 1950s by two American medical men, Dr. James Elam and Dr. Peter Safar. However, in 1745, Dr. John Fothergill gave a lecture to the Royal Society of London. He had recently read an essay written the previous year by a Scottish physician, William Tossach. Dr. Fothergill explained to those learned gentlemen how Dr. Tossach had saved a miner who had been overcome by toxic fumes while working in a mine shaft. The unconscious man had no sign of a pulse or respiration. Dr. Tossach had closed the apparently dead miner’s nostrils and had then blown air into his mouth as hard as he could, fully inflating the man’s lungs. After several strong breaths, Dr. Tossach detected a pulse and the man began to breathe on his own. He soon made a full recovery.

Dr. Fothergill believed that this treatment had the potential to save many lives, especially those of people who had been drowned. At this time, most drowning victims were either hung by their heels to "drain" or were rolled over a barrel in an attempt to squeeze the excess water from their bodies. Remarkably, it took nearly thirty years for this new treatment to gain the support of the medical community of England. It was not until 1774 that medically-approved instructions for this therapy were published and circulated for the use of doctors by the newly founded Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned, later known as the Royal Humane Society (RHS).

Dr. Thomas Cogan, co-founder of the RHS, was aware than at least since the 1760s, many English midwives had been using this same treatment to revive apparently still-born infants with much success. Based on that knowledge, he probably urged Dr. William Hawes, his fellow co-founder, to disseminate this life-saving information. Dr. Hawes became a strong proponent of the technique and worked diligently to advocate its use to resuscitate victims of drowning both within the medical community and to the public at large. In addition, the RHS began to award medals or certificates of merit to those who had resuscitated a drowning victim.

Curiously, in 1788, more "scientific" instructions for "blowing breath," as mouth-to-mouth was then called, were published. These instructions recommended that a length of flexible tubing placed in the nose or mouth of the victim and attached to a set of bellows could be used to inflate the lungs, as an alternative to actual mouth-to-mouth contact. The medical men and scientists who supported this form of artificial respiration believed that the air which was passed from the practitioner to the victim in mouth-to-mouth contact was not "good air." They were of the opinion that respired air was depleted of the vital components necessary to sustain life. The bellows technique then became the preferred treatment for adults, though actual mouth-to-mouth continued in use for the resuscitation of new-borns.

It was very difficult to ascertain the efficacy of either of these techniques for "blowing breath" over the course of the nearly forty years in which they were in use. Statistics were not regularly gathered or analyzed. In addition, many drowning victims were also suffering from hypothermia when they were recovered, and thus received treatment for both conditions. It was difficult to pin-point if mouth-to-mouth or vigorous rubbing of the limbs and the liberal internal application of strong spirits was responsible for their recovery. It was also difficult to get some people to perform this "kiss of life" for a victim of drowning, as many felt it was improper to have any kind of physical contact, and certainly not open mouth contact, with a total stranger.

Dr. Hawes, of the RHS, continued to champion "blowing breath" as an important treatment for drowning victims right up to the time of his death in 1808. But after his passing, it seems there was no one else with the same enthusiasm for the technique, nor the influence to continue to promulgate it with the public or even in the medical community. In 1812, the Annual Report of the Royal Humane Society for the Recovery of the Apparently Drowned officially withdrew its support for the treatment of drowning victims by "blowing breath." The report noted that respired air, even from the most healthy person, was not pure and therefore posed a great risk to the recipient. They recommended that the practice should be avoided.

And so, only a year into the Regency, "blowing breath" was officially denounced by the very society which had at first championed the practice. It was eventually lost to medical history and had to re-discovered by Drs. Elam and Safar in the 1950s. But, now you also know that this treatment had been known and used in England since the mid-1770s. So, should it be used in a novel set during the Regency, you will know that it was quite possible for someone living at that time to be familiar with the practice, even if it was no longer medically approved.

I ran across this information in Chapter 5 of a fascinating book, The Kiss in History, edited by Karen Harvey. This book is a series of papers which were presented at a conference of the same name, held at the University of London and supported by the Royal Historical Society. Chapter 5 is entitled The Kiss of Life in the Eighteenth Century: The Fate of an Ambiguous Kiss, written by Luke Davidson. There are other equally fascinating chapters in this book. I do not believe you will be bored if you seek it out at your local library or used bookstore.


About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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6 Responses to Mouth-to-Mouth Banned in the Regency

  1. Shuzo TANIDA says:

    for the 1st time I know the truth of mouth-to-mouth ventilation, it is so interesting..
    Quaker and physician he is. , the habit of kiss must be popullar with
    westen countries I bellieved,
    in 1745 it is near from now today. really interesting.

  2. Pingback: Mouth-to-Mouth Banned in the Regency | The Beau Monde

  3. Sia says:

    I don’t know if it’s also called this in America but the kiss-of-life is also known as “rescue breathing” over here.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thanks for sharing the information. Here in the States it is usually just called “mouth-to-mouth” or CPR (cardio-pulmonary resuscitation), if one is doing both lungs and heart.


      • Sia says:

        Huh! I was familar with the term CPR. I didn’t know what it actually stood for. In hindsight, kinda obvious.

        Completely irrelevant Sidenote: I was about to tell you about this awesome blog entry I found about children losing milk teeth in the regency area….uhh, yeah, it’s your archives I found it in.

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