Smoking’s good for you – as long as you’re a priest

The editor of the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal surely had no idea of the furore that he was provoking in March 1839 when he published an inoffensive little article about parish priests: 

Impaired voice in clergymen

Within less than twenty years a new disease has been developed in this country, which is almost exclusively confined to parish ministers. It is a loss of tone in the vocal organs, attended by a sense of fatigue in the muscular apparatus of the throat, and accompanied by a peculiar dryness and rigidity, apparently, of the lining membrane of the larynx. All these circumstances concur to destroy the original character of the voice, and finally incapacitate very many excellent men from discharging their pastoral duties.

The article goes on to observe that this problem has become an epidemic, and that many priests have requested release from their livings, since they have become incapable of speaking in public.  And medicine apparently has little to offer them:

Many have placed themselves under medical care, with an expectation that rest, together with the administration of a gentle course of tonic remedies, would eventually overcome the difficulty, and enable the vocal cords to vibrate with their original energy… But the success in treatment has by no means answered the expectations of those who prescribe, or those who take the intended remedies. The disease, instead of diminishing, though neither infectious or contagious, increases in a ratio corresponding with the multiplication of the clergy.

But the writer has a suggestion.  He has recently been discussing the problem with Dr Mauran, a distinguished physician from Rhode Island, who remarked

that he could not ascertain, either in his own circle of acquaintance, or by inquiry among professional gentlemen residing in different sections of the country, that those clergymen who used tobacco, had ever suffered from the minister’s ail, with one single exception. The inference, therefore, was, that smoking or chewing kept up a secretion in the neighborhood of the glottis, favorable to the good condition and healthy action of the vocal box.

Dr Mauran points out that since the emergence of the Temperance movement, most clergymen have strongly disapproved of tobacco.  But this was not always the case:

Now it is almost susceptible of positive demonstration that the clergy of olden times smoked and chewed very universally. The lawyers speak hours together, and when leisure permits, many of them smoke; and, as a general rule, the leading advocates are very great smokers — and yet, who ever heard of a lawyer who had lost his voice?

How much more proof do you need?

The suggestion that priests should smoke for their health did not down well with many of the journal’s readers.  Several doctors wrote to complain bitterly about it, one of them even suggesting presciently that cancers of the mouth and tongue were a direct consequence of the habit.  Dr Mauran had his defenders, too, and a lively correspondence on the subject followed.  One anonymous physician, while condemning smoking as a ‘disgusting and filthy’ practice, suggested that the subject needed further investigation: he acknowledged that he knew of many smokers who had lived to an advanced age.  They included one of his patients, still in fine fettle at the age of 101:

She has been in the habit of smoking her pipe before breakfast – after breakfast – about half past 10 o’clock – after dinner – in the afternoon – after tea – and I think, though am not certain, before retiring for the night… Her son’s wife has resided with her for twenty-one years, and says she has never taken medicine except once some animal oil for a cough, and a few times a laxative of thoroughwort, &cc., prepared by the family. She has been very regular in her habits, having stated times for her food, and always a certain quantity, without any regard to the kind of food prepared for her.

Intrigued, he did some more research.

I made inquiries to learn the history of all the cases in this town of those who had arrived to the age of seventy and upwards, and have found only one instance of either male or female who had not been in the practice of using tobacco, either in form of snuff, chewing or smoking, and often all three combined. The bills of mortality for this town are, I believe, as small as any in the Union of the same number of inhabitants, and I am confident no place can be found where so much tobacco is consumed, both by young and old.

From Dr. Mauran’s statement, one of our clergymen has commenced smoking for an affection of the throat. The result may at some future time be communicated.

Alas, there seems to have been no follow-up.  Let’s hope the clergyman came to no harm.

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