Flogging, Bellows, Barrels, Smoke Up the Bum and Abraham Lincoln - Early CPR

Last week saw the start of induction of our new third year students starting the clinical phase of their time at university. I was on CPR duty for much of it. CPR as we know it was developed in 1960. For the centuries before that there were many different techniques attempted to revive a patient without a pulse. It’s fair to say these were, ahem, interesting.


In the early Middle Ages a patient would be flogged or flagellated sometimes with nettles to try and revive them. It was presumed that the shock would awake the patient rather than any consideration of their circulation.


In an early example of artificial ventilation bellows began to be used in the 1500s to blow air down the patient’s throat and into their lungs. However, simple air manoeuvres were not used. Bellows were popular for about 300 years until in 1829, the French physician Leroy d’Etiolles demonstrated through his work on barotrauma that over distension of the lungs could kill an animal so they went out of fashion.


Fast forward to the 1700s and fumigation comes into use. The physician would light a pipe of tobacco and use the above contraption to literally blow tobacco smoke up the patient’s rectum. It was believed that the smoke’s effects would revive the patient through the irritant effects of the tobacco smoke.

Barrel Method

Resuscitation would then go back the lungs and a technique to force air in and out of the chest. This led to the barrel method where the barrel was used to force inspiration and expiration. You can kind of see what they were trying to do here with a mechanical intervention.

Russian Snow Method

Meanwhile in Russia in the early 19th century the snow method came into fashion. The idea being to slow the metabolism of the patient and hope that circulation would return at a later date.

The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln

Whilst at Ford’s Theatre on 14th April 1865 US President Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth in the back of the head. Charles Leal, a young military surgeon, and another doctor Charles Sabin Taft attempted to revive Lincoln with a three stage approach:

Method “A” “... As the President made no move to revive then, I thought of another way of death, apnea, and I assumed my preferred position for him with artificial respiration to revive …” “… I knelt on the floor on the President, with one knee on each side of the pelvis and in front of him. I leaned forward, opened my mouth and inserted two fingers of his right hand as far as possible .. . and then I opened the larynx and I did a free passage for air to enter the lungs … “

Method “B”: “… I put an assistant in each of his arms to manipulate in order to expand the chest and then slowly pushed his arms down the side of the body as I pressed the diaphragm above: These methods caused the vacuum and air is forced out of their lungs … “

Method “C”: “… Also with the thumb and fingers of my right hand pressure intermittent sliding pressure below the ribs stimulated the apex of the heart …”

Lincoln did become more responsive but it was clear his wounds were fatal and he died the next day. The three stages above are almost recognisable to the ‘ABC’ method we’re taught today. The doctors took steps to protect Lincoln’s airway, there was some consideration to force ventilation and an attempt at pressing the heart. It’s still not CPR as we would know it.

It took the US Military adopting mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and CPR as well as public campaigns helped by the arrival of Resusci Anne (more on her here) for CPR to become a key part of both medicine and health education.

It’s very easy to laugh at these previous techniques and sometimes hard to see the logic behind them. However, we don’t know which staples of Medicine we use today will be deemed irrelevant or even wrong. For example, we no longer perform gastric lavage and even collar and blocks are being debated as sometimes doing more than good. Maybe in the future medics will view us as incredulously as we do at someone blowing tobacco smoke up the rectum of a moribund patient. Maybe.

Thanks for reading.

- Jamie