A flaming nuisance

burns of the faceIn 1886 a physician from Glasgow, Dr George Beatson, wrote to the British Medical Journal with a rather unusual tale. One of his patients had written to him to tell him about an alarming incident that had occurred early one morning:

“A rather strange thing happened to myself about a week ago. For a month or so I was troubled very much with foul eructations.

The polite medical term for belching.

“I had no pain, but the smell of the gas which came from my stomach was disagreeable to myself, and to all who happened to be in the room. About a week ago, as I said, I got up in the morning, and lighted a match to see the time, and when I put the match near my mouth, to blow it out, my breath caught fire, and gave a loud crack like the report of a pistol. It burnt my lips, and they are still a little sore. I got a terrible surprise and so did my wife, for the report awakened her.”

One can sympathise with the poor woman. Dr Beatson concludes that halitosis can sometimes be not just malodorous but downright dangerous:

In the present instance, the gaseous results of the imperfectly digested food had their atoms of carbon and hydrogen so arranged as to give rise to the presence of carburetted hydrogen…

An antiquated term for methane. The verb ‘carburet’ means ‘to react or mix with carbon’.  The carburettor of a car engine is the part that mixes hydrocarbons (i.e., petrol) with air to render them more explosive.

…the inflammable and explosive qualities of which came into play when mixed with a due proportion of atmospheric air in presence of the unguarded light of the burning match.

Dr Beatson was probably correct, though the gas may also have included hydrogen, which is also generated in the gut. The surprisingly extensive Wikipedia article about flatulence includes an enlightening section about the chemical composition of such gaseous emissions.

Dr Beaton’s short article prompted a rather lively correspondence. A couple of weeks later one Dr Saundby, from Birmingham, wrote a scholarly letter which included chemical analysis of the flammable gases belched by other patients. But his thunder was stolen by another Glaswegian, Dr R. Scott Orr, who shared an anecdote sent to him by an ‘old gentleman aged about 70, who has since died of apoplexy’:

“Some five or six years ago I had great acidity and indigestion, and then found relief from Gregory’s mixture and bismuth, and, for a good time, found comfort by using these.

Gregory’s powder was a mixture of rhubarb, ginger, and magnesium carbonate, a patent medicine commonly used to treat digestive disorders for over a century.

“But within the last year or two, indeed longer, I have been much troubled by great flatulency, general puffiness after dinner and during the night, with considerable pain at the pit of the stomach. Not troubled with heartburn or acidity so much, but with eructations of wind or gas, and this of such an offensive smell as to render me most uncomfortable, indeed unhappy, in any one’s company or proximity, and latterly the pain so severe, or rather oppressive, as to prevent my sleeping.

It sounds an inconvenient complaint. And, it transpires, unexpectedly dangerous.

“About four or five months ago, while lighting my pipe of an evening, it so happened that one of these involuntary eructations took place while the match was at my pipe, and the gas then took fire, and burned my moustache and lips, and frightened me a good deal. It was just such an explosion or puff as would occur on your putting a pinch of gunpowder to a light.

BOOM, as they say.

“My son H. was sitting by me, reading, and immediately looked up in astonishment. He has witnessed the same thing occur either two or three times, and it has occurred in all five or six times. I have tried all sorts of changes of diet, but to no purpose. It would seem that there takes place a generation of unwholesome gas in great quantity, in the evening, and not particularly from a heavy meal, for my principal is breakfast, and it never troubles me, although I always then eat a hearty meal.”

I’m no doctor, but I think I can suggest one possible course of action: give up smoking.

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