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Snuffs and Sneezes Cure Diseases

In the 17th and 18th centuries, patients were encouraged to snuff, snort and sneeze their way out of a whole range of ailments and illnesses. 

Frontispiece from Paul Barbette’s The Practice of the Most Successful Physitian (sic), engraving by Frederick Hendrik van Hove, 1675.Deep into the cold and flu season, the common adage that ‘coughs and sneezes spread diseases’ is heard across the northern hemisphere. The sound of a powerful sneeze or cough tends to prompt anxiety about the potential for the virus to strike, but in the 17th and 18th centuries sneezing also cured diseases. In order to rid themselves of ailments, men and women inhaled, snorted and snuffed an assortment of medicines. Sternutatory medicines – those that promote sneezing – including powders and snuff, were commonly described in medical texts and advertisements and were sought for a variety of medical conditions.

In late 16th- and 17th-century England tobacco was thought to be a panacea that was universally good for the body. The botanist John Parkinson claimed that it helped ease migraines, cold stomachs, kidney pains, gout and toothache. It could be smoked, pasted onto the body as an ointment or snorted as snuff.

A late 17th-century advertisement for an ‘Admirable Snuff’ claimed that it was a treatment for the French Pox (venereal disease) and all its associated problematic symptoms: swellings, ulcers, scalding urine and heaviness of the limbs. This concurred with established thinking – as explained in books such as The Touchstone, or, Trial of Tobacco – that tobacco was discovered to be an antidote for the pox by the indigenous peoples of the New World.

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