The peculiar history of the enema.
Around the world there are (not surprisingly) few public monuments to the enema.
However, make a journey to the southern Russian city of Zheleznovodsk and you’ll find just that in one of its many spas.
The Mashuk Aqua-Therm spa in Zheleznovodsk is one of a multitude in the region that routinely administer saltwater enemas to treat digestive complaints, so it apparently seemed natural to the owners to commission a $42,000, 800-pound brass monument depicting a giant enema syringe supported by three little angels, for display in the grounds.
Compiling these weekly emails for you takes me on some fantastical voyages of discovery, but this one almost certainly takes the cake.
First, let’s begin with some proper science.
What do you think would happen to your gut microbiome if you flushed yourself out with an enema or oral laxative?
You’d be asked to do this if you ever required a colonoscopy, for example, in which case you’d be asked to knock back a strong laxative solution the day before the procedure.
This can often have spectacular results, and in fact it’s what Richard Sprague did, reported by him in a December 2015 uBiome blog post.
Although Richard wasn’t preparing for a colonoscopy, he was just interested in what might happen to his gut bacteria, so he had them tested before and after a thorough cleanse, as well as on the day of the clean-out itself (brave man).
While Richard did notice a brief change in the amounts and ratios of his bacteria, in just two weeks everything had returned to the way it was before the cleanse.
Actually his results echoed a 2014 study at the University of Helsinki in Finland showing that a gut-cleanse of the experiment’s participants resulted in a temporary 31-fold decrease in microbial load.
Some individuals took a month to get back to normal, but most did return to a stabilised position again.
Now this may not be so surprising when you consider that much of the bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract is well and truly embedded in its mucus lining.
So while loose bacteria milling around in the tubes can get flushed out fairly easily, the embedded stuff stays put.
Enemas have been around for a long time. In fact the ancient Egyptians used them 4,000 years ago, referring to what we’d call a proctologist as a “nery phuyt” which loosely translates to “Shepherd of the Anus”.
And of course, as you might expect given his exalted position, a Pharaoh had his own private enema maker, known in all seriousness as the “Keeper of the Royal Rectum”.
You won’t find many of those on LinkedIn.
If this isn’t extraordinary enough, let us jump forward to 18th-century Britain where, and I kid you not, tobacco smoke enemas were all the rage, particularly when it came to reviving people who’d almost drowned.
An amazing story is told of a man whose wife had been pulled from the water, thought to have died from drowning.
Apparently a passing sailor suggested that the husband should insert the stem of a pipe (actually the sailor’s own) into his wife’s, um, back passage, cover the pipe’s bowl with a piece of perforated paper, then blow into it vigorously.
Detailed accounts suggest that the woman was, in this remarkable manner, miraculously revived.
(Unfortunately history doesn’t reveal what she said to her husband as she came round.)
Thereafter the Royal Humane Society genuinely installed tobacco smoke enema resuscitation kits along the banks of the River Thames, seriously considering them as an alternative to artificial respiration.
Some tobacco smoke enema therapy involved the practitioner – just like the unfortunate husband above – physically blowing into a tube “connected” to the patient.
Of course, as you might imagine, knowing the difference between exhaling and inhaling was vital.
Wider use of the tobacco smoke therapy as a treatment for cholera had the extremely unpleasant side-effects of infecting the practitioner when they accidentally sucked in air rather than blew it out.
Apparently the theory behind tobacco smoke enemas was that they warmed and stimulated victims of near-drowning.
Unfortunately such a promising technique was snuffed out in 1811 when people of course realised just how toxic nicotine was.
Not too lucky to survive being nearly drowned, only to then die from a nicotine overdose.
Hats off to the husband of the nearly-drowned woman of course, but also commiserations to the passing sailor who very probably had to kiss his pipe goodbye.
So to speak.