Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Oral Respirator of 1851: C'mon, Peeps, Let's Breathe Right!

by Stephen J. Gertz

Clockwise, from upper left: The Hand Oral Respirator, held in the hand and applied to the mouth; The Orinasal Respirator
for the Mouth and Nostrils,
chiefly used at night to remove cough
and promote sleep; The Fixed Oral Respirator for the mouth only;
The Nasal Respirator for the Nose only,
of especial value for use at
night and in sleep. This instrument sits with much comfort on the Nose.

For the mid-19th century huddled masses yearning to breathe free (at nominal cost) this scarce and slim pamphlet advertises Mr. Jeffreys several respiration devices to be worn or held against the mouth. Though this leaflet appears to be a typical “quack” cure promotion, the device invented by Jeffreys was a legitimate medical instrument patented in Great Britain in 1836 (No. 10,287) and was the prototype for respirators still manufactured today.

Jeffreys’ respirators were “constructed on scientific principles, and designed to facilitate respiration by supplying to the air passages and lungs, when in a delicate or irritable state, air fresh and pure, but rendered so genial as to be soothing to them, however cold, foggy, and irritating the atmosphere might be,” thus providing relief to sufferers of a variety of respiratory ailments.

Within its pages are reprints of favorable notices for the Jeffrey respirators from standard medical journals, including Lancet (1851) and Medico-Chirurgical Review (1840). A price list at the back mentions lower-priced models for the Working Classes (less air, less filling?) and availability at no charge to the indigent (no air; the poor inhale the wealthy class's exhalations and make do).

Julius Jeffreys (1801-1877) was raised in India, studied medicine in Edinburgh and London and served as surgeon for the British East India Company in India. 

When he originally arrived in England from India in 1835, "Julius was distressed to find his now-widowed sister, Harriett, suffering from tuberculosis, and he was shocked by the general prevalence of lung diseases in England. In a time before there were medications to treat these ailments, mortality data from the period shows that, except during epidemics, the most common cause of death was lung afflictions.

"Julius invented a mask, which he called a 'Respirator." The mask worked by capturing moisture and warmth in exhaled air in a grid of fine metal wires. Inhaled air then was warmed and moistened as it passed through the same metal grid, providing relief to sufferers of lung diseases. The invention was patented and received patent number 10287, in 1836. The Respirator became very popular, and was mentioned in the literature of the day, including in the writings of Elizabeth Gaskell, William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Dickens" (Wikipedia, in a well-referenced article).

Jeffreys was much interested in the relationship between climate and health and developed an early air conditioning system as well as heat-resistant clothing and headgear; he contributed to development of the Pith helmet widely used by British troops in tropical climes. 

Pith helmets were later used by American film comedians on the Road to Zanzibar. Readers will recognize the alluring anthropomorphic plant at center from L'Empire des légumes (The Empire of the Vegetables) by Amédée Varin, recently discussed here on Booktryst).

For the record, a pithy factoid: the helmets were made of the cork-like pith from the sola, Aeschynomene aspera, an Indian swamp plant, or A. paludosa, or a similar plant).

Jeffreys brought his ideas together in an 1858 book, The British Army in India: Its Preservation by an Appropriate Clothing, Housing, Locating, Recreative Employment, and Hopeful Encouragement of the Troops. Jeffreys was elected to various learned societies and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society.

The OED dates the word “respirator” from 1836, the year of Jeffreys’ patent.

OCLC/KVK locate only copy, at the Wellcome Library.

Better snap up this little rarity lickety-split in time for the next SARS outbreak or the End of Days (recently postponed but sure to be rescheduled, TBA). Then we can all walk around (or sleep) wearing one of the modern variations, what appears to be a terrestrial snorkel for sidewalk skin-diving - or a very weird sex-toy:

Image courtesy of MedSupplies101.

Want to get through the next avian flu epidemic, catarrh crisis, or HAZMAT hell fashionably but not all by yourself? Try his n' hers respirators. After all, the couple that resides together respires together.

Image courtesy of Deutsch-iStockPhoto.

Mr. Jeffreys is now rolling in his grave, wishing he'd thought of it.

The Respirator for All Affections Attended With Irritation in the Air Passages as Colds, Cough, Sore Throat, Asthma, Consumption &c. [London]: J. & I. Tirebuck, Machine Printers and Lithographers, [1851?]. Quarto. 8 pp. Caption title, illustrations of the devices, including “the oral respirator as worn by Ladies and Gentlemen.” Modern cloth.

Book image courtesy of James Eaton of Alastor Rare Books, with our thanks.


  1. Stephen, very humerus article. I think Julius Jeffreys would have approved. I wrote the Wikipedia article, and co-wrote the recent book on JJ. The difference between the "upper" and "lower" class respirators was the grids used in the respirator (silver and tin plate). There was a fund set up to pay for respirators for those who needed them but couldn't afford them (the free to indigents comment above). The Jeffreys respirators became less needed as air quality improved and the company went out of business in the early 1900s.

    Andy Marshall

  2. Thank you, Andy, for stopping by, commenting on the post, and leaving readers and me the better for it. And, too, that you appreciated whatever humor I was able to bring to bear.

  3. Andy is right - I liked your article and i thinks is very funny - weird how Andy signed as anonymous. It's amazing how people from all corners of the world research this material and share it with the rest of us. Thank you both, Andy - who wrote on wiki, and Stephen.

  4. Sorry, Burberry Watches, if it was weird I signed on as anonymous. I just couldn't be bothered creating a profile ;-) I continue to do a periodic online check of new Julius Jeffreys stuff, and like to leave a comment sometimes. As to the comment in the text that "Mr. Jeffreys is now rolling in his grave, wishing he'd thought of it" - his grave is in the London Borough of Richmond cemetery if you want to check! Andy


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