The Cold or Catarrh in the Late 1800s

Many doctors of the late 1800s wrote about and investigated the cold, or at it was often called, catarrh. Nineteenth-century doctors also had advice about the best ways to avoid or prevent a cold. Of course, that was not always possible and so when a cold happened, doctors and even quacks wanted to cure it and so many tried.

Illustration of air passageways. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Among the doctors interested in the cold was Irishman Dr. John Campbell. He was a fellow of the Royal University Ireland and member of the Royal Irish Academy. He had a Bachelor of Arts and Medicine from the University of Dublin and had served as a professor of chemistry and hygiene and was interested in the elements of hygiene related to schools and colleges. Because of his interest, he wrote a book and investigated the cold in its relationship to hygiene.

Campbell noted the causes, consequences, and methods of prevention related to a cold and maintained that it should be no surprise to anyone that in “damp” and “changeable” climates symptoms associated with a head cold were bound to happen. He also pointed out that people could easily tell when they were affected by a cold because symptoms included irritation and inflammation of the mucous membranes, along with congestion and later a runny nose.

John Henry Clarke was another doctor interested in colds. He was one of the most eminent homeopaths in England and known at the time for his famous clinic located at 8 Bolton Street, Piccadilly, in London. He was also a consulting physician to the London Homeopathic Hospital and editor of Homoeopathic World. In addition, he wrote several books about health and focused on colds stating in 1899:

“We speak of a cold in the head as if there was only one kind of cold; but the fact is, there is an infinite variety. Each person almost has something characteristic about the course and progress of his unassisted cold. The orthodox cold is the one which begins, after sitting in a draught, with a creeping chilly feeling up the back, culminating in a sneeze. Then there is a lull in the proceedings; but the nose never feels quite easy, and by-and-by another sneeze announces that the damage is already done.”[1]

John Henry Clarke. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although Campbell never mentioned that were different types of colds, Clarke did. He claimed there were essentially three: The orthodox cold described above, influenza colds (severe colds that were attributable to the prevalence of “ozone clouds”), and infectious colds (a cold that was somehow caught).

Campbell noted that when a cold occurred, there was no clear information as to how a person might be affected or what body part might be affected because of it. He believed that people reacted differently to a cold, and Clarke essentially agreed. Both men also believed that when affected by a cold one person might show hardly any symptoms, another person might come down with pleurisy, or another might develop pneumonia or bronchitis because  people were “vulnerable in one part and some in another.”[2]

Campbell also thought that a variety of illnesses could be linked to a cold, particularly if the cold was neglected. He noted that rheumatic fever, bronchitis, emphysema, heart disease, dropsy, pneumonia, pleurisy, consumption, inflammation of the kidneys, neuralgia, paralysis, and problems with the eyes and ears could all be consequences of a cold. In addition, he maintained that a cold could aggravate pre-existing conditions particularly in cases of “scarlatina, measles, and whooping cough.”[3]

Campbell thought that there were six causes that predisposed a person to a cold. Here’s his list:

  1. Inattention to the skin, which then resulted in impairment and weakened its defenses.
  2. A delicate constitution.
  3. A person’s age or what he called the “extremes of life.” This meant “the young” and “the old” were more susceptible to illnesses that affected their “air-tubes.”
  4. Insufficient or unsuitable food. Insufficient food could result in a loss of strength and unsuitable food did not contain “heat-giving material,” therefore that made the body more vulnerable to a cold.
  5. Too little exercise because it reduced the body’s heat.
  6. Insufficient or unsuitable clothing.

Campbell also thought that the immediate cause of a cold were the following:

  1. Exposure to low temperatures when the body was too warm or perspiring too much. For example: “Removal of a garment while in such a state, or a long drive in an open vehicle, on the evening or night of a day during which the individual has played at such games as lawn-tennis.”[4]
  2. Exposure to cold and damp combined. For instance, if a person was wet through and through and then failed to change his or her damp clothing illness could occur. Supposedly, according to Campbell, “[this] occurs frequently in colleges, by the students exercising on the damp grass and keeping on their wet boots during study; the children of the poor sometimes catch cold on washing days in wet weather by remaining in the rooms were the drying of the clothes is carried on.”[5]
  3. Compulsory or prolonged rest taken in a drafty place or in a cold room.

Clarke’s ideas follow and were somewhat similar to Campbell’s:

  1. Sitting in a draught when a person was over-heated or exhausted.
  2. Getting wet or chilled, with some people being more susceptible to developing a cold through having cold feet versus having cold hands.
  3. Entering a room when a person was overheated or exiting a room into the cold air with the person being insufficiently clothed for the cold weather.
  4. Wearing improper clothing during the seasons, i.e., too light of clothing in fall or winter or too heavy of clothing in spring or summer.
  5. Sleeping in damp sheets or staying in wet clothing.
  6. Indulging excessively in the use of cold water. However, Clarke did state that a cold bath was supposedly “an excellent institution,” but it could be overused and should only be used by those in “vigorous health.”
  7. Caring for the skin improperly and not according to a person’s skin type. Clarke believed that people had different types of skins and therefore some could benefit from cold baths and a brisk rub down while others would not.

Both Clarke and Campbell, like many other doctors of the nineteenth century, focused on ways to prevent a cold. Clarke thought that one of the chief ways to do so was to avoid “coddling,” which he described in the following manner:

“The muffler is a great snare. it is much better to accustom the neck to bear a certain amount of exposure, giving it the protection of collar and tie, but nothing more. Sometimes the muffler is relied on as the sole extra wrap on a cold day. If a child has a few yards of knitted stuff twisted around its neck, the fond parent is apt to feel that there is no need to attend to its back and chest. But the muffler will not fill the part of an overcoat, which is the garment really needed.”[6]

“A cure for a cold,” showing a man using a hot foot bath and wrapped up. Courtesy of Wellcome Images.

Clarke had other ideas on how to prevent colds. He advised people to use oil on what he termed “poor skin.” The idea was to use about a teaspoonful and rub it over the body after a cold bath. He suggested to parents that children who were susceptible to colds should be rubbed down nightly with cod liver oil and then dressed in a flannel nightgown for bed. He also suggested that morning baths should involve one or two tablespoons of spirits of wine that would be sponged rapidly over the body, and because the spirits dissipated quickly, there was no need to dry off. His last suggestion was that people should wear proper clothing that fit the seasons and embraced changeable climates, such as those seen in Great Britain.

Campbell’s list was more thorough than Clarke’s when it came to preventing colds. He included 13 things that he stated were tantamount:

  1. Scheduling meals to keep up a person’s strength and heat-producing power.
  2. Eating foods that contained proper amounts of both flesh-formers and heat-givers; examples of the former were eggs, meat, cheese, and of the latter fat, sugar, and starch.
  3. Increasing the quantity of food in cold weather because people were inclined to more exercise and therefore needed a larger amount of food to maintain their health.
  4. Washing the skin regularly to “free the pores” and remove “effete matter.”
  5. Bathing in cold water followed by brisk drying to create a friction that thereby helped make the skin hardy and able to withstand colder temperatures.
  6. Placing flannel next to a child’s skin because children had a greater “liability to bronchitis” when faced with temperatures. This also included covering a child’s limbs and chest, particularly the upper chest of girls.
  7. Wearing garments that were not “burdensome.” This meant that heavy outer garments were not recommended because they would likely be removed.
  8. Avoiding tight lacing because it restricted breathing, impeded circulation, and lowered skin temperatures.
  9. Improving and strengthening the nutrition of the lungs by participating in moderate gymnastics, using chest-expanders, or singing. These were all cited as good preventions against the cold.
  10. Breathing only through the nostrils and not through the mouth in cold weather.
  11. Keeping feet warm with proper winter boots that had good thick soles.
  12. Taking a hot bath, going to bed, and drinking warm drinks when feeling the slightest hint of a cold.
  13. Removing to residences during the winter and spring that were warmer for anyone affected by low temperatures.

A maid bringing medicine and soup to her master who has a cold. Lithograph, 1857, after W.H. Simmons after J. Collinson. Courtesy of Wellcome Images.

Clarke had several ideas on how to cure a cold and approached his cure from a homeopathic perspective and asserted that “armed with his therapeutic weapons and a sound judgment, the physician of to-day can bid even colds defiance and can shorten their … duration by many days.”[7] In addition, both Clarke and Campbell agreed with the type of advice that many doctors suggested at the time for dealing with colds. These included Turkish baths, hot baths, hot foot baths, and gruel. If those proved ineffective, Clarke then suggested that patients take camphor and aconite because they affected the chill associated with a cold.

Clarke and Campbell were not the only people dispensing advice on dealing with colds. Some doctors of the late nineteenth century suggested patients take patent medications, and advertisements for such cures could be found regularly in newspapers. One advertisement that appeared in the 1850s was for “Holloways antiphlogistic Pills.” This medication supposedly operated on the blood, influenced circulation, and stimulated every organ to perspire, thereby effecting a cure for the cold. The advertisement also claimed:

“Few persons escape without colds, which though seldom attended with immediate danger, often lay the foundation for serious diseases. At their commencement the cure is accomplished with ease; reduce the existing fever, and allay irritation, and the patient is himself again.”[8]

Another supposedly miraculous remedy from the 1850s was “Paul Gage’s Tonic Antiphlegmatic Elixir.” It was claimed to have been around for forty years and was a “precious remedy” that was guaranteed to be excellent and its use adaptive. It covered a wide range of issues from phlegm, worms, dropsy, scrofula, and yellow fever to catarrh of the bladder. It supposedly worked on a cold because it reduced the accumulation of phlegm that obstructed organs and was touted to be safe to administer to “the infant, the adult, and to persons of the greatest old age.”[9]  

Another alleged winning suggestion came from a Dr. John M’Donald located in Regent’s Park in London. He advertised that catarrh could be cured by a cold medication inhalant that he had created. He claimed:

“It must be evident to every thinking mind that pouring medicines into the stomach is not the way to cure diseases of the lungs or air passages; neither were the lungs intended to breathe steam or hot vapour, which are sometimes used. The rationality of Cold Medicated Inhalation is apparent. The patient breathes a medicated vapour of the same temperature as the atmosphere, thus conveying the remedy directly to the disease.”[10]  

Advertisement of John M’Donald. Author’s collection.

A homoeopathic doctor named Mackenzie wrote a couple of volumes on the ear, nose, and throat and labelled his cure “Dr. Mackenzie’s Catarrah Cure.” He consistently ran ads for his product and maintained that all chemists sold it and that it would cure more than just catarrh. He also promised that no imitations could match it and assured buyers:

“[It] Cures Cold in the head, cures Nervous Headache, instantly removes Hay Fever and Neuralgia in the head, is the best remedy for Faintness and Dizziness.”[11]

Another cold cure advertised and touted in British papers appeared in 1898 and was called “Munyon’s Catarrh Cure.” It was created by the American born Professor James M. Munyon. He claimed that his medication, priced at a shilling, was based upon the latest scientific discoveries. He also made astonishing promises in his advertising that his medication would “relieve [catarrh] in five minutes and cure in a few days.”[12] Of course, it did not, and, in fact, Munyon was found guilty of fraud several times for unsubstantiated and false claims. Critics also noted that most of his medications were primarily mixtures of sugar and alcohol.

Professor James M. Munyon. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although some doctors in the 1800s were legitimately trying to cure the common cold, none of them accomplished such a feat in the nineteenth century, and neither did anyone cure it in the twentieth or twenty-first centuries. Today people realize that a cold involves the upper respiratory tract and that over 200 virus strains are implicated in causing it. Moreover, people today also recognize that the symptoms associated with a cold are mostly due to the body’s immune response to infection.

Other realizations about colds have also been noted in the twenty-first century. Colds remain the most frequent infection in humans today, and the medications and methods used to cure a cold in the 1800s were often ineffective and sometimes dangerous. Today, the focus remains on how to prevent a cold with the primary methods being hand washing, staying away from sick people, and avoiding touching the eyes, nose, or mouth.


  • [1] J. H. Clarke, Catarrh, Colds and Grippe: Including Prevention and Cure, with Chapters on Nasal Polypus, Hay Fever and Influenza (Philadelphia: Boericke & Tafel, 1899), p. 4.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 14.
  • [3] J. Campbell, Elements of Hygiene for Schools and Colleges (Dublin: M. H. Gill and Son, 1885), p. 104.
  • [4] Ibid., p. 103.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 104.
  • [6] J. H. Clarke, p. 26.
  • [7] Ibid., p. 33.
  • [8] Cork Examiner, “Holloways Pills,” p. 4.
  • [9] Hull Advertiser and Exchange Gazette, “Administered for Forty Years With Success in Europe and India,” September 17, 1852, p. 2.
  • [10] Illustrated Weekly News, July 25, 1863, p. 16.
  • [11] Coventry Evening Telegraph, “Dr. Mackenzie’s Catarrh Cure,” December 19, 1893, p. 3.
  • [12] Londonderry Sentinel, “Munyon’s Catarrh Cure,” April 9, 1898, p. 3.

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  1. Don Nitkin on May 25, 2022 at 5:44 pm

    My mom put a mustard plaster on my chest when I had a cough and cold. Warm at placement, cold in the morning. Yuck.

    • Geri Walton on May 30, 2022 at 11:10 am

      Never had to suffer with that. Sounds like I’m lucky.

  2. Don Nitkin on May 30, 2022 at 12:30 pm

    Vicks Vaporub did the same think.She switched to it. Thank goodness

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