Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Achoo!!!: The Humble Sneeze



The bridge of your nose tingles and your eyes start to water, after a quick intake of breath through your mouth, you can feel the pressure building in your sinuses until your body is wracked with a quick, explosive movement, expelling air, mucus, and irritants.

You have just sneezed.

Those of us with seasonal allergies are perhaps a bit too familiar with that feeling right now!

Sneezing happens when our mucus membranes are irritated by allergens, disease, or other triggers and is an attempt to forcefully expel the irritant.

What Is A Sneeze Anyway?

For some early modern medical practitioners, a sneeze was a bit more complicated.  As Robert Bayfield wrote, a sneeze was an “involuntary expulsion (by the nostrils) of the flatulent windie spirits, and sharp vapours offending the brain.”[1]  Indeed, as another author noted, sneezing was very useful to cure “obstructions of the substance of the brain.”[2]

Sneezing, it was believed, helped to remove superfluous humours from the brain.[3]

Photo via CDC/ Brian Judd (Photo Credit: James Gathany, 2009)
Jean Baptiste van Helmont questioned this assumed connection between the brain and sneezing.[4]  Comparing the “waterish snivel” and “snotty snivel” that exited his proboscis, van Helmont noted that both occurred when he inhaled powdered hellebore and tobacco.  Since both occurred quickly after nasal irritation, they were “speedily made” without any “hurting of the brain” and thus not some sort of “brain excrement.”[5]

Aside from expelling excessive brain humours, John Pechey noted, that sneezing could also be a symptom of disease or of “sharp Vapours…transmitted to the Nostrils.”[6] 

The sneeze was so commonplace - even in times of health – that Pechey wrote it “scarce deserves the Name of a Symptom.”  Yet, he continued, why would we say “God bless you” when someone sneezes if it were not sometimes dangerous?[7] 

Indeed, the origin of the wishing well the sneezer was a matter of some debate.  Some argued that the practice began with Prometheus.  Others argued that the practice was popularized in the sixth century during the time of Pope Gregory “when at Rome in a great sicknesse, men died with sneezing” during a time of epidemic disease (likely the Plague of Justinian.[8]

The humble sneeze, then, deserved a bit of respect!

Sneezing and Prognostication

For the superstitious, sneezing could be used to prognosticate whether an ill person would live or die:
Also take a handfull Rew, and stamp it with oyle of Roses, and lay it upon his head, being shaven before, if he sneeze once he shall live, if he sneeze not he shall dye: this is proved by Galen.[9]
Sneezing and Sex

A truly surprising number of midwifery texts mention sneezing.  Pechey’s The Compleat Midwife’s Practice Enlarged, for example, argues that a violent sneeze could break a hymen (and so a lack of hymen did not equal a lack of virginity).[10]

Violent sneezes were said to cause female genital and rectal prolapse and even to “loosen the Ligaments of the Womb, and so cause miscarriage.”[11]

Despite these potentially serious complications, medical practitioners thought that sneezing could also be remarkably beneficial to pregnant women during labour.  Indeed, Robert Johnson thought that it was “a good sign of deliverance” if a labouring woman naturally began sneezing.[12]

Philip Barrough wrote that inducing sneezing was particularly helpful to “strong” women who laboured for several days with a large child or even multiple children.[13] 

The sheer violence of sneezing was thought to speed up the delivery process and many practitioners listed methods of inducing sneezing fits in their labouring patients.

Pechey, for example, recommended the following powder to induce sneezing in pregnant women: 
Take of white Hellebore, half a dram, of long Pepper, one Scruple, of Castor five grains. Make a Powder: Let the quantity of a Pease be blown up the Nostrils.[14]

Inducing Sneezing

Sneezing powders with a variety of ingredients were ground into very fine powders and then blown up the nostrils with a hollow quill. 

Hannah Woolley recommended this one:
Take Cloves, Ginger, and Calamint, of each a like quantity, boyl them in White-Wine, and therewith wash the Nose within; then put in the powder of Piritrum to provoke one to sneeze.[15]
White hellebore. Photo credit: wiki user Planchon.

Paul Barbette, a French surgeon, used the following sneezing powder on John N., a fellow surgeon, who was suffering from the plague:
Take the flower of Lillies of the Valley, Leaves of Marjoram, of each half a scruple; white Hellebore, three grains: Make them into fine Powder.

As Barbette recorded, the powder encouraged his patient to sneeze “3 or 4 times” before dying.[16]

White hellebore, or sneezewort, was used frequently to induce therapeutic sneezing.  Nicholas Culpeper’s translation of the Royal College pharmacopeia lists grated white hellebore as a harsh medicine that induced sneezing, killed rodents when consumed, and could be used to treat melancholy.[17]

Sooo…suffering from seasonal allergies right now?  Just think, all that sneezing is actually making you healthier and happier ;)

Let me know what you think here or on Twitter – I’m (a sneezy) @medhistorian.


[1] Robert Bayfield, Tes Iatrikes Kartos, London: printed by D. Maxwell (1663), 148.
[2] M. Flamant, The Art of Preserving and Restoring Health, London: printed by R. Bently, H. Bonwick, and S. Manship (1697), 78.
[3] John Pechey, The Store-House of Physical Practice, London: printed for Henry Bonwicke (1695), 99.
[4] Jean Baptiste van Helmont, Van Helmont’s Works, London: printed for Lodowick Lloyd (1664), 1041-1042.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Pechey, 99.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid and Alexander Ross, Arcana Microcosmi, London: printed by Tho. Newcomb (1652), 222.
[9] Philiatros, Natura Exenterata, London: printed for H. Twiford (1655), 279.
[10] Pechey, The Compleat Midwife’s Practice Enlarged, London: printed for H. Rhodes et al (1698), 286.
[11] Robert Johnson, Praxis Medicinae Reformata, London: printed for Brabazon Aylmer (1700), 242-243 and 249.
[12] Ibid., 253.
[13] Philip Barrough, The Methode of Phisicke, London: printed by Thomas Vautroullier (1583), 161.
[14] Pechey, A Plain and Short Treatise of An Apoplexy London: printed for the author (1698),18.
[15] Hannah Woolley, The Accomplish’d Lady’s Delight, London: printed for B. Harris (1675), 198.
[16] Paul Barbette, Thesaurus Chirurgiae, London: printed for Henry Rodes (1687), 392-393.
[17] Nicholas Culpeper, Pharmacopeoia Londinensis, London: printed for Peter Cole (1653),  6.