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The respirator

Respirators were used in Victorian times to protect people from tuberculosis and other lung infections. Peter Homan, FRPharmS, investigates

The Pharmaceutical Journal Vol 265 No 7128p936-937
December 23/30, 2000 Christmas miscellany


Peter Homan, FRPharmS,

Consumption (tuberculosis) and other infections of the lungs were a problem for Victorians. One of the more bizarre pieces of apparatus to evolve in the search for relief for these conditions was the respirator (Figure 1).

The Complete Oxford Dictionary defines three respirators:

  1. An apparatus for testing the composition of exhaled air
  2. A device of gauze or wire covering the mouth, or mouth and nose, and serving to warm the inhaled air or to prevent the inhalation of dust, smoke, or other noxious substances; also a gas mask, or any mask for providing protection against noxious substances in the air
  3. An apparatus for maintaining artificial respiration

The first definition refers to an apparatus designed in France in 1792, which consisted of “a respirator with vital air in a jar on one side and lime water in another”. Many of us will remember using such an apparatus in our school days to show the presence of carbon dioxide, the lime-water turning milky when breath passes through it. The third definition refers to the equipment developed to maintain respiration including the “iron lung”for those suffering from poliomyelitis, and equipment for life support during surgery. The second definition is the one of most interest to pharmacists.

The first reference to a respirator is as an invention by Julius Jeffreys in the autumn of 1835 which was patented in 1836 as Jeffrey?s Patent Specific No 6988, described as “an instrument adapted to the mouth alone and named as a respirator”. Haydn?s Dictionary of Popular Medicine (ca 1900, undated) describes a respirator as “an instrument worn over the mouth by those who wish to avoid exposure to the night air in cases of consumption, winter cough, etc. In this way warmer air is conveyed to the lungs, and this prevents any irritation of the windpipe and prevents a cough”.
The original respirators consisted of a fabric covered, oval-shaped metal mouthpiece with a central core of fine wire mesh, secured to the mouth with tapes that passed behind the head (Figure 2). Later models used a variety of materials including gold and silver plated wire and, indeed, gold and silver wire with frames covered in silk or velvet or manufactured from silver.
The Chemist&Druggist, of September 15, 1860, includes an advertisement headed: “Mr Jeffrey?s respirators ? with all the recent improvements by him”. It says: “The wholesale agent of these important instruments begs to remind all sufferers from irritation in the throat and lungs that it was to give comfort to these organs he invented an instrument able duly to warm and moisten each entering breath, so as to form a genial and portable climate for them, and that to effect this with the least possible obstruction to the currents of the breath inwards and outwards that elaborate and delicate combination of the most highly-conducting metal, for which he introduced the name Respirator, is essential. It is this construction which, by benefiting thousands annually, has given a world-wide celebrity to his name.”
The advertisement featured “the hand oral respirator, held in the hand and applied to the mouth”. There were three types: “superior quality, in kid leather”, “ordinary hand respirator”and “oral respirators for the working classes”. Also featured were “orinasal respirators”.

In the Chemist&Druggist of December 15, 1860, an advertisement by “E. Collier, Surgical Instrument Manufacturer of Clerkenwell, London”, announced Collier?s new aluminium respirator (Figure 3). He claimed that aluminium was “the most pure metal ever discovered having the properties of fine gold and possessing a great superiority over other metallic respirators being only half the weight”and “admitting of as free conversation as if the mouth were uncovered”.

Also featured in the same Chemist&Druggist was an advertisement for a new “Parisian cork respirator”(Figure 4), listing an agent, Albert Speight of Clerkenwell ? an early example of parallel importing?
Respirators were certainly popular. An advertisement in the Chemist&Druggist Diary for 1879 features a line drawing of Victorians taking the night air wearing their respirators while those unfortunate to be without are coughing (Figure 1). It lists 30 varieties of respirator and offers (to facilitate the sale) “a glass-top with £1 worth; a mahogany counter case with £2 worth, and a large handsome case with sloping front for £5 worth”. Prices ranged from one shilling (5p) for the “shilling respirator”to 10 shillings and sixpence for the “manifold respirator of variable power”. Profit margins were about 30 to 50 per cent.
As mentioned above, oro-nasal respirators (Figure 5) had been developed by 1860. A piece of sponge or a pad of lint was incorporated into the design to allow the introduction of medicaments in the form of inhalations to relieve the symptoms (and, hopefully, cure the condition). The National Formulary for National Health Insurance Purposes, 1933, included:

Vapor Formalin
Liq Formaldehyd m. 30
Chlorof fl dr 1
Menthol gr 10
Ol Abietis m 10
Sp Chlorof ad fl oz 1
Sig Ten drops to be used in an oro-nasal inhaler

Oro-nasal inhalers were developed for workers and soldiers, using charcoal filters and pads soaked with solutions. ?Pharmaceutical formulas? of 1950 (a Chemist&Druggist publication) featured the following for saturating the respirators used by British troops as a protection against chlorine:

Respirator solution
Sodium thiosulphate 15 oz
Sodium carbonate5 oz
Glycerin (by weight) 2 oz
Water 10 oz

A little eucalyptus or other essence can be added as a refresher

Two respirators are worthy of a special mention. One is the Burney Yeo Inhaler, the other is the Martindale Smog Mask.
Dr Burney Yeo introduced a wire mesh oro-nasal inhaler in the 1890s (Figure 6). It was available on a National Health prescription until 1965.
The Martindale Smog Mask (Figure 7) was a metal frame holding a replaceable gauze mask. It was designed to filter the particles out of the thick fogs or smogs so prevalent in Britain up to the mid 20th century. It is now marketed as the Martindale Particle Dust Mask.
From about 1920 medical dictionaries did not recommend the general use of oral respirators for everyday use, especially in children, as the moist atmosphere generated within the apparatus harboured and encouraged the growth of bacteria. It was thought better to apply a handkerchief or, better still, to breathe through the nose where air was naturally warmed and filtered.
Today, respirators are used in all sections of industry and the armed forces to combat noxious substances, by cyclists to combat vehicle dust and fumes or by the do-it-yourself decorator. What started life as an air warmer has proven to be a life preserver. With today?s pollution problems is this the way forward? Will we again walk the streets wearing a respirator? Designer, of course.

ILLUSTRATIONS: All illustrations have been provided courtesy of the museum of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society.
fig 1

Figure 1: Victorians wearing respirators (Respirators and Chest Protectors, C&D Diary, 1879, p8)


Figure 2: Mouth Respirator (collection of the museum, Royal Pharmaceutical Society)

fig 3

Figure 3: Collier?s Aluminium Respirator (C&D, December 15, 1860, pXVIII)

fig 4

Figure 4: Parisian Cork Respirator (C&D, November 15, 1869, pXXXV)

fig 5

Figure 5: Oro-Nasal Respirator (collection of the museum, Royal Pharmaceutical Society)

fig 6

Figure 6: Inhaling Respirator, Yeo?s, Oro-Nasal (Allen & Hanburys Ltd Catalogue, 1930, p150

fig 7

igure 7: Martindale Particle Dust Mask (collection of the museum, Royal Pharmaceutical Society)

Peter Homan is a retired community pharmacist and honorary secretary of the British Society for the History of Pharmacy

Citation: The Pharmaceutical JournalURI: 20003907

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