The petrol cocktail: a cure for cholera

Petrol in treatment of choleraOn September 22nd 1846, Dr James Tunstall of Bath wrote to Sir Charles Napier, the Governor of Scinde (then part of the Raj; now Sindh Province in Pakistan).  The province had been suffering from an epidemic of cholera, and Dr Tunstall believed he could help:

Sir -The alarming fatality that has attended the progress of the cholera morbus in the province under your Excellency’s command, has induced me to trespass on your attention some remarks on the efficacy of the Indo-petroleum – a remedy of singular virtue, when the powers of life require an active and powerful stimulus.

What we now call petroleum is a blend of refined hydrocarbons.  It is also toxic by inhalation or ingestion.  At this date the word denoted a crude, i.e. unrefined, oil, containing a larger proportion of long-chain hydrocarbons.  Not that that’s much better.

It is a mild though effective stimulant, antispasmodic and antiseptic, acting in the same manner on the absorbent vessels as mercury, without its deleterious effects; it speedily permeates the whole system, so that its odour is perceptible in all the animal excretions.

And also rendering them highly flammable.  Under no circumstances approach the patient, or their bedpans, with a naked flame.

The observations of the celebrated Dr. John Davy, and of other eminent practitioners, have demonstrated that the respired air of cholera patients contains a much smaller proportion of carbon (that element which is discharged from the system during healthy expiration) than is sufficient for the proper purification of the blood. Now, in the petroleum, we have a medicine that acts primarily as a powerful stimulant, secondarily by supplying the system with its due proportion of carbon for excretion; while its effects being produced by means of the absorbent system, it acts beneficially as an antiseptic, preserving the frame from the rapidly fatal effects of this horrible disease by evolving carbonic acid from the lungs. I have seen the petroleum used extensively both locally and generally, and have never observed the slightest deleterious effects arise from its exhibition, even in comparatively large doses.  

Dr Tunstall concludes with the recipe for his patent remedy:

Take the yolk of one egg, and amalgamate with it a tablespoonful of the petroleum, and to it add forty drops of the aromatic spirits of ammonia, filling a wine-glass with equal quantities of brandy and water; and this dose may be repeated according to the emergency of the case.

There’s probably a hipster bar somewhere selling this cocktail for £15 a go – but on reflection I’ll give it a miss.

[Source: Provincial Medical and Surgical Journal, 1848]

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