The Holy Herb:   Tobacco as Medicine

Though no one but a botanical scholar or historian would credit it today, tobacco was first imported from the New World to the Old World as a medicinal plant. It was still held to have those properties for certain uses during the Regency. Even those who used tobacco in its various forms during the Regency did so under the impression it was good for them, or, at the very least, that it did them no harm. Which was partially true, since the tobacco used during the early nineteenth century actually contained fewer toxins than the majority of tobacco products available today.

The medicinal uses of tobacco during the Regency . . .

There are actually several species of tobacco, all of which originated on the pair of continents which the Europeans came to call the Americas. The native residents of these continents used the various species of tobacco in a wide range of spiritual and medical practices. Because of its powerful spiritual associations, the native American users of tobacco were careful to employ tobacco only according to their special cultural practices. This naturally put limits on when and how the plant was used and thus protected them from many of the negative consequences which might have occurred, had they abused it.

The early Europeans who came to the New World noted the many benefits which they believed were the result of the use of tobacco and were soon shipping quantities of the plant home. By the seventeenth century, tobacco had become known as the "holy herb" and was used by physicians to treat a number of ailments. The smoke was believed to cure headache, colds, asthma, earache, nausea and even exhaustion. The leaves and/or juice of the plant was used to treat burns, cuts, deafness, eye infections, constipation, boils, sores, croup, fluid retention and animal bites, especially those that were poisonous, among other ailments. A most "holy herb" indeed.

But the Europeans, in their arrogant disdain for the spiritual practices of the Native Americans, often misused and over-used tobacco. Native Americans had smoked tobacco only briefly, during special ceremonies, and consumed the leaves or juice in limited quantities as a medicine or hallucinogen. In Britain, through the seventeenth century, smoking tobacco, in a pipe, was the most common form of tobacco consumption. In the early eighteenth century, taking powdered tobacco in the form of snuff became increasingly popular, particularly among the upper classes. One reason for the popularity of snuff among the British upper classes was that early in the eighteenth century, Beau Nash, the great Master of Ceremonies at Bath, forbid smoking in the public places of the city. Nash was also a snuff-taker, who did so with great elegance. Therefore, snuff taking became fashionable among the nobility and gentry. Those among the lower classes typically found snuff too expensive, and contented themselves with smoking a pipe or two during a visit to the pub. In the form of smoke, tobacco was a mild muscle relaxant, while in the form of snuff it was a stimulant which gave those who took it a noticeable lift.

Pipe smoking and snuff taking were the main forms of tobacco consumption in Regency Britain. Crude cigars were in use in the Iberian Peninsula, primarily in Spain. It had been common in previous times of war to offer tobacco to soldiers to provide them with some stimulant and distract them from hunger when rations were scarce. Some British soldiers did pick up the habit of cigar smoking while serving in the Peninsular Wars, but it was never a socially-acceptable habit during the Regency. This may be due, in part, at least, to the fact that General Wellington abhorred smoking of any kind and strictly forbade smoking in or near the barracks. Even so, most military doctors included among their medical equipment an apparatus which allowed them to administer tobacco smoke to patients who had been rescued from drowning or who were suffering severe breathing difficulties.

Curiously, the application of tobacco smoke in the treatment of drowning victims does not appear to have been common among the civilian population during the Regency and it was completely abandoned by the military by the end of the period. However, tobacco was still used to treat various ailments for more than a decade after the Regency came to an end. Many doctors recommended that their patients who suffered from the pain of rheumatism smoke tobacco for pain relief. A number of patients did actually get relief from the pain, quite possibly because tobacco smoke is a muscle relaxant and can act as a mild analgesic. Those who suffered from chronic constipation were advised to smoke a pipe after breakfast to stimulate the bowels. There are no extant records to prove or disprove the efficacy of this treatment, but it seems that many people followed this advice from their doctors over the course of several decades, so perhaps it did work.

Tobacco smoke was also used in medical treatments in which the patient did not inhale it. Pipe smoke was strongly blown into the ear to cure an ear-ache, though it appears this was not done with any special apparatus. Rather, the medical practitioner drew smoke from a pipe by mouth, then firmly blew it directly into the patient’s ear. A similar process was used for the treatment of bowel obstructions, though the smoke was introduced into the rectum, usually using some form of tubing and a bellows. A few doctors used a slightly different technique for evacuating the bowels. The tobacco smoke was blown into a quantity of milk, then the "smoked milk" was injected into the rectum. Either rectal treatment was also used to eliminate worms and other intestinal parasites. Today, such treatments would typically be referred to as an enema, but during the Regency, the older term, "clyster," was more common. There were some who also believed that either type tobacco clyster was an antidote to strychnine poisoning.

In addition to using the smoke, the leaves of tobacco were also employed in various medicinal preparations. Instead of smoke, a large rolled tobacco leaf was used a suppository for the treatment of bowel obstructions. In some instances, a cigar was used for this purpose. A tobacco leaf steeped in water for several hours, then applied to the rectum, was considered to be a sure-fire cure for piles. Chopped and boiled tobacco leaves were applied as a poultice on cuts, abrasions, boils, open sores, and burns, as well as insect and animal bites. Though it may come as a surprise, these poultices were usually fairly effective, since one of the active ingredients in tobacco, nicotine, is a natural antibiotic and anti-microbial. Tobacco poultices were even sometimes successful in treating the bites of poisonous reptiles and insects, if applied soon after the bite.

Tobacco leaves could also be dried and powdered, for which there were multiple uses. Finely powdered dried tobacco leaves were an effective method by which to kill lice and other external parasitic vermin. Curiously, there were some who also believed that powdered tobacco leaves could not only halt hair loss, but would also stimulate hair growth. Powdered tobacco leaves were blended into hog lard to create an ointment which could be used for the treatment of cuts, burns and sores. This same tobacco leaf/hog lard ointment was sometimes recommended as a chest rub for those suffering from a cold and cough or the croup. It was also used by a number of people in the treatment of piles. There were some who felt the most effective ointment was made of Scotch snuff, considered the strongest form of tobacco, blended into hog lard. Others preferred an ointment blended with milder tobacco leaf powders.

Powdered tobacco leaves, made into teas or decoctions, were used to treat fever, dropsy, and gout. Tobacco leaf teas and decoctions were often employed as diuretics, sedatives, expectorants, or, in strong solution, as an emetic of last resort. A very strong decoction of tobacco leaves was a particularly reliable method by which to induce vomiting. However, the results could be severe, so it was only used when there was no other option. A regimen of milder tobacco teas were also sometimes consumed to remove worms, in addition to, or as an alternative to, a tobacco clyster.

Fresh tobacco leaves were also a source of tobacco juices and oils. The juices pressed from fresh tobacco leaves were used to treat facial neuralgia, a type of pain caused by nerve damage. The term "neuralgia" itself originated during the Regency, as did the use of tobacco juice to treat the pain. Tobacco leaf juice was also used in topical application to treat other forms of nerve pain. Fresh tobacco leaves were used to distill tobacco oil, using methods similar to that used to distill rose, orange and other flower waters. A drop or two of tobacco oil was a powerful pain reliever for those suffering from toothache, but care had to be taken that the patient did not swallow too much of the oil, since it was not only hallucinogenic, but highly toxic. Though not a medicinal application, essential tobacco oil was sometimes used in the making of perfumes.

From the seventeenth century, into the early decades of the nineteenth, a growing number of doctors began to distrust tobacco as an efficacious and safe source of medication. Nevertheless, many doctors and healers continued to use tobacco in various forms to treat a number of ailments right through the Regency. It was not until 1828, that nicotine was isolated and discovered to be a highly toxic alkaloid, part of the nightshade family. At that point, most doctors ceased using tobacco in medical preparations. Yet certain tobacco-based medications were still included in a number of pharmacopeias until the middle of the nineteenth century.

Despite the fact that nicotine was shown to be very poisonous, smoking, of both cigars and later cigarettes, increased during the remainder of the nineteenth century. The smoking tobaccos used during the Regency were mostly just chopped tobacco leaves. To entice new customers and keep existing ones, by mid-century many tobacco companies included a number of additives in their products. During the Regency, a number of additives went into snuff, typically flavorings and humectants. These additives were not particularly dangerous to those who took snuff, since the tobacco powder was inhaled, not burned. What was either unknown or ignored, was that many of these additives changed composition when burned in conjunction with tobacco and produced much more poisonous smoke than the smoke produced by pipes, and even crude cigars, during the Regency. Frighteningly, there are even more additives used in tobacco products today than there were even fifty years ago. Few, if any studies have been done to determine the safety of any of them. Therefore, smokers today are in even greater danger than were smokers during the Regency.

Tobacco-based medical preparations may have a place in a Regency novel or three. A tobacco-leaf poultice is an effective treatment for a wound or bite, since it has antibiotic properties. Perhaps such a poultice is used to treat the hero’s wound, and thus, his wound does not become infected. A mild tobacco tea is an effective sedative, should an author be trying to avoid the use of laudanum. However, a tobacco tea which was too strong could easily induce vomiting. Gross, but it might be just the thing for a particular scene, mayhap a method by which the heroine is able escape the villain and/or his henchmen? Tobacco oil was a powerful pain killer, but in that concentrated form, it could also be a powerful hallucinogen. A character with toothache might use too much, only to find themselves hallucinating from the treatment. How might that play out? During the Regency, tobacco was not used just for recreational purposes, it also had a medicinal dimension. A clever Regency author might find any number of uses for medicinal tobacco.

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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4 Responses to The Holy Herb:   Tobacco as Medicine

  1. Very interesting plot bunnies, Kathryn! Would it be easy or dificult for our heroine to get her hands on tobacco oil or to buy tobacco leaves for medical treatment? Could she simply get such things in an apothecary or would she have to sneak it from a doctor’s bag?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Good questions all! From what I can tell, tobacco is very hard to grow from seed and is typically propagated by seedlings, so it is unlikely most people would have it growing in their kitchen gardens.

      However, it seems that at least some of the apothecaries in London and the larger towns did carry things like tobacco leaves and tobacco oil. Snuff is pretty much powdered tobacco, some with flavorings and humectants added, usually by the tobacconist. And some tobacconists ground and flavored their own snuffs, so the larger ones may well have had fresh leaves as well as powdered leaves on hand. Since both men and women took snuff during the Regency, I do not think it would be considered remarkable for a woman to stop into a tobacconists to make a purchase. However, I get the sense that most upper-class ladies and gentlemen sent their servants to pick up their tobacco purchases.

      So, it is my take that a Regency character could get both fresh and dry tobacco leaves, as well as tobacco juice and oil from the larger apothecaries. Fresh and dry tobacco leaves, as well as snuff, would all be available from any good-sized tobacconists. But I don’t think they would have had tobacco juice or oil available, since both were considered strictly medicinal at that time.

      Getting medicinal tobacco from a doctor’s bag, or even their office, would be a hit or miss affair. From what I can tell, by the Regency, a large percentage of doctors found the use of tobacco-based medical preparations suspect. More than likely, the more old-fashioned the doctor, the more likely they would carry, or have tobacco medicines on hand.

      I hope this helps.



  2. Receptors can be found throughout the body that respond to the nicotine in tobacco. In fact, they are called “nicotinic” and respond to acetylcholine released by neurons originating in the brain and spinal cord. In turn, stimulation of these receptors excites neurons in the sympthetic nervous system to releases norepinephrine and thereby speed up blood pressure, constrict blood vessels, dilate bronchioles, and generally excite the mind and body. These statements are not “beliefs” but tried-and-true conclusions based upon extensive research over many centuries. That tobacco acts as a stimulant and anti-depressant is far from news to its users. That these effects are vastly inferior in intensity and quality to newer and more specific antidepressants that have fewer or no side-effects (including those associated with carcinogenesis) appears also to have escaped the awareness of these same smokers.

  3. Pingback: History A'la Carte 4-9-15 - Random Bits of Fascination

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