The turpentine vapour bath

extraordinary malpractice

The year is 1874, and American medics are deeply concerned about the activities of quacks and unlicensed doctors who are damaging the reputation of the profession. One particularly worrying case is reported by The Medical and Surgical Reporter:

The following account is sent us by a correspondent in Baltimore. It is needless to say that the two physicians were both irregular practitioners. A young lady had been ill some time, and her sapient advisers decided she had Bright’s disease, for which they prescribed a turpentine vapor bath.

Turpentine, an oil obtained by distilling the resin of trees (usually pines), was a traditional remedy, frequently employed by doctors until the end of the nineteenth century. According to Spencer’s Dictionary of Domestic Medicine and Household Surgery (1852), ‘Oil or spirits of turpentine is a valuable remedy, either externally or internally.’ It was often used as a purgative, as a topical skin treatment and to treat intestinal parasites. There were good reason for its disappearance from conventional medicine, since it is toxic, can cause damage to the kidneys and lungs, and bring on respiratory failure if inhaled. It is also highly flammable.

The bath was administered under the supervision of the doctors (?) in the following manner:—The patient having had the clothing removed, and been enveloped in blankets, was placed upon a chair with a hole in the seat. Beneath her was suspended a tin vessel containing the turpentine, and under it was placed a spirit lamp. The chair was covered with blankets and the lamp lighted.

Hmm. A volatile spirit and a naked flame. What could possibly go wrong?

In a few minutes the patient sprang from the chair, exclaiming that she was on fire, simultaneously an explosion occurred, disseminating the ignited fluid about the chamber. The lady was terribly burned in the regions of the nates and thighs.

The nates are the buttocks.

She suffered excruciating agony during the three succeeding days, when death relieved her. The authors of her sufferings stated that they regretted exceedingly the unfortunate accident (?); that it was an experiment they had never before tried, but from which they had hoped good results

This statement beggars belief; it didn’t even occur to them that a flammable liquid might explode if heated by a spirit lamp.

…that the small quantity of vapor, with which she had come in contact, had already greatly benefited her kidneys…

This does not qualify as a mitigating circumstance. A mortality rate of 100% for the procedure would rather indicate that it was not a great success.

…and that the accident did not materially affect the result, since her case was hopeless.

So that’s all right then.

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