Doctor Thomson's Steam Treatment

By Dr. William H. Cook

(with help from Laurence Layne)

Samuel Thomson and his followers were sometimes called "steam and puke" doctors by their detractors. The emetic herb in his black bag was, of course, lobelia inflata. His "vapor" treatments were a little harder to visualize, but essentially involved wrapping a patient in blankets, sitting them on a chair, and placing a pot of steaming water underneath them. There was, of course, more to it than that, and fortunately we have William H. Cook's concise description of the process. Dr. Cook was the late, great 19th century Physiomedical philosopher and writer.

"Dr. Thomson's earlier method of applying vapor, was by setting a chair upon narrow pieces of board over a tub containing boiling water; removing all the clothing of the patient, and covering him behind with one blanket, and in front with another, reaching from the neck to the floor outside of the tub; and then causing vapor to rise around the body by, from time to time, plunging a highly heated brick into the water. This is a laborious though effective method; and I have noticed recently that some prominent physicians in the English hospitals have resorted to it in some hopeless dropsical cases, and, to their unfeigned astonishment, cured their patients."

“A simple mode is to generate the vapor in a close vessel upon, a furnace or stove, and conduct it under the chair by means of tin tubes an inch or more in diameter. This method allows such a bath to be given to a patient upon a bed, the clothing being lifted up by pieces of hoops suitably placed. Another method consists in a large wooden box, about two feet square and five high, into which the patient is placed upon a chair, and the vapor conducted by pipes from a suitable boiler.”

“By this plan, the patient breathes the vapor, which is many times a decided advantage; though when the blood has a tendency toward the brain, it is desirable to stretch a sheet across the box, so as to confine the steam from the neck downward.”

“The simplest and least laborious method, now almost universally adopted, is that of generating the vapor, by an alcoholic lamp, from a shallow basin shoved under the chair. The lamp may be tin, and hold about six ounces; and be provided with three pretty large wicks. The basin may be six inches in diameter, four inches deep, and supported a suit- able distance above the flame of the lamp by three iron stilts, slipping into slots upon the sides. The patient being seated upon a wooden chair and properly surrounded by blankets from the neck downward, the lamp and the basin (nearly filled with boiling water) are to be pushed under the chair. In this case, the heat of the burning alcohol is added to that of the vapor; and it would not be allowable to cover the head with the blankets. This is commonly called the hydro-alcoholic bath, and is more stimulating than the vapor alone.”

"Whichever method is adopted, the feet must be placed in some quite warm water; for the vapor rising around the body, the upper parts will get heated, the extremities remain cool, and the balance of circulation be disturbed, unless this precautionary step is adopted. And as the bath progresses, the water at the feet may need to have its temperature increased by suitable additions of boiling water. Diaphoretic drinks, more or less stimulating as different cases require, should be given previous to and during the bath. The vapor, like the tepid pack, should be continued till the face gets into a fair perspiration; though chronic and sluggish cases may have the bath continued for several minutes after. When the patient is removed from the bath, a slight dash of cold water should be thrown upon the chest and shoulders, and the entire surface dried with that amount and force of friction suited to the case in hand. From ten minutes to an hour may be required for such a bath."

Comment by Laurence Layne: My first exposure to this water therapy idea was through a book Home Remedies: Hydrotherapy, Massage, Charcoal and Other Simple Treatments by Calvin and Agatha Thrash, who were natural healers in Alabama. A simplified version is to wrap the patient in blankets while seated and place their feet in a basin filled with hot water. Diaphoretic teas are a plus. The overall idea is to vent heat from the head and upper body, while drawing the blood down into the lower body, cooling things off, and thus fulfilling the Physiomedical principle of "equalizing the circulation."

The Physiomedical Dispensatory by William Cook, M.D., 1869, courtesy of Paul Bergner at

Facebook Twitter Google Reddit LinkedIn

Physio-Medical Books Recommended by Us

photo photo photo