A colonial doctor talking about the stramonium plant to a sitting woman

What If You Lived With COPD 250 Years Ago? 

Last updated: August 2023

As a kid with severe asthma, I often wondered what life would be like if I had been born 50 years earlier when rescue medicine didn’t exist. Would I have suffered from shortness of breath every day? Would I have survived my childhood?

Now that I am here in this COPD community, I am wondering the same about COPD. What would it be like for someone living with COPD, say, in the year 1776?

Reflecting on COPD in the past

Obviously, I’m going to have to do some speculating here. I say this because no one alive lived 248 years ago.

I also say this because, even if someone 248 years had COPD, they probably did not know they had it. This is because the term COPD was not used as a diagnosis until after the 1950s.1

I would imagine having this disease anytime prior to the 1950s would have been both challenging and debilitating. After all, almost all the wisdom we currently have about COPD has been learned since the 1950s.

Plus, almost all the treatments we currently have for COPD were introduced after the 1950s. So, there would have been little, if anything, in the line of treatment for anyone living with COPD in 1776.

What did doctors know?

As noted above, doctors knew very little about COPD in 1776. In fact, most doctors also knew very little about respiratory diseases in general. However, people still did experience COPD and its symptoms back then. They most certainly reported these symptoms to their doctors.

It would be very unlikely that you would have actually been diagnosed with COPD at this time. As noted above, the term did not even exist back then.

Doctors did know about emphysema. We know this based on the writings of physicians who lived before this time. But they certainly did not know what caused emphysema, let alone how to diagnose it without performing an autopsy.

So, in 1776, your doctor would diagnose you based on the symptoms you complained of. If you noted that you were experiencing shortness of breath, increased sputum, and coughing, you would probably be diagnosed with any of the following: consumption, phthisis, asthma, or pulmonary complaints.

These are all umbrella terms that cover pretty much all of our modern respiratory diseases: from COPD to asthma, from tuberculosis to emphysema,  and from bronchitis to lung cancer.

What treatment would you have received?

Treatments for respiratory diseases were scarce. What treatment you received, if any, would depend on where you lived.

If you lived way out in the countryside, you might not have access to a doctor. Therefore, what treatments you had access to may be limited to what was in your medicine cabinet.

If you lived closer to a city, you may have easier access to a doctor. Still, what treatment you received would be limited to what the doctor had access to.

If you were lucky, your doctor would have given you a diagnosis, perhaps of asthma, and maybe recommended herbal remedies such as stramonium, lobelia, or ephedra. All of these can open airways and make breathing easier. They may also help ease your mind and relieve some of your suffering.

There is still lots of work to do. But I think our medical community has come a long way since our country was founded. What do you think?

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