Our History: A Funny Asthma Story

“I Have A Funny Asthma Story,” she said. I wondered what could be funny about asthma. Rather than say that, I said, “I love hearing funny asthma stories.”

I’m glad I worded it the way I did. She shared a neat story. It was about our history. Her story segued into a fun discussion about our history.

An asthma story

She said, “My grandma had asthma. She would inhale this powder. It came in a can. It was a blue can. She would put the powder in front of her. And she’d ignite it with a match. It produced a smoke that she inhaled.

“It produced a horrible smell,” she continued. “At least it was horrible to us kids. I know that it helped grandma, though. She used it until the late 1970s. It was sold over the counter. One day she went to the store to get her asthma medicine. It was not on the shelf.

“She asked the pharmacist, ‘Where is my asthma medicine?’”

“‘The pharmacist said, ‘It was taken off the shelves. It’s no longer available.’”

“Concerned, my grandma said, ‘Why would they do that?’”

“‘Because it had marijuana in it,’ the pharmacist said. ‘Kids were using it for recreation. They were abusing it.’” She smiled and laughed. It was funny to her, she thought her grandma smoked marijuana.

I think that’s what she saw as funny. Her grandma was addicted to marijuana. She loved the asthma powder because it really did take the edge off.

But it was marijuana.

She said her grandma’s asthma got worse after that. She said her grandma ended up dying of asthma. She had it bad. And she said that she wished they wouldn’t take old remedies off the shelves. They should continue to be available for those who need them.

I said, “I love your story. I have heard similar stories. It may have been marijuana your grandma inhaled. But, it probably was stramonium or belladonna. Those are from the same family of plants as marijuana. But, those were the main ingredients of asthma powders. And they had similar hallucinogenic effects as marijuana.”

I could see the glow in her eyes as I described the medicine. And that glow became brighter when I told her I knew what the medicine was.

“You do?” she said, gleefully.

I told her she should Google inhalatorium.com. The creator of that site collects old asthma inhalers. On the site, he also has many asthma powder cans. I Googled it on my iPhone for her. I showed her a green can. It said, “Dr. R Schiffmann’s Asthmador.”

“Yes! It looked like that!” she said. “But, the can my grandma used was blue.”

That makes sense, I explained to her. There were many brands. The powders they contained were a little different depending on the brand you bought. But, they all did the same thing. They were mild bronchodilators. They also had a mild hallucinogenic effect. It helped to take the edge off the feeling of shortness of breath. It was a very useful medicine for its time.

She said, “She just wanted to take her asthma powder. She wanted to inhale the smoke. None of the other medicines helped her.” Her smile waned slightly. “But, that was a long time ago. I was just a kid.”

“Maybe your grandma was addicted,” I said. “And inhaling the smoke probably did help her asthma. But, it may also have made her asthma worse. It made her need the remedy even more. So, it was doubly addicting.”

“You know,” she said, “I never thought of that. Maybe that’s why she had trouble making the transition. But, still, I think it’s a neat story. It’s neat telling people my grandma smoked marijuana. It’s funny, even.”

“Sure is,” I said. “It’s a neat story to tell. And I really enjoyed it.”

I explained a little history of smoking for asthma. I explained how it started with the ancient Egyptians. How it made it’s way to ancient India. How the Indians stuffed the dried and crushed powders in their pipes. How this remedy made it’s way to the U.S. in the early 19th century.

Inhaling powders was a common asthma remedy. It was available in cans. This was probably the cheapest version. It could be stuffed into pipes. They may have placed it in glass bottles. Or, they put it on plates, ignited it, and inhaled the smoke. Although, many just burned it using the lid of the can as a tray.

There was a famous doctor in the early 20th century. He had many asthma patients. Back then doctors went on rounds. They went to their patient’s homes. This doctor quipped that he could always tell which patients had asthma by the smell. He could smell the scents before he even opened the door.

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