Has any Cincinnatian escaped the agonies of hay fever? Give a thought to our patron saint, poor William Morrow of Hartwell. Hay fever killed him in 1902. Among the 528,000 vital records recorded in Cincinnati from 1865 to 1912, Mr. Morrow is the only person for whom hay fever is the official cause of death.
For the rest of us, pollen season only makes us feel like we are dying.
Hay fever first emerges as a distinct affliction in the 1860s, when several famous men proclaimed their affliction, including statesman Daniel Webster and the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher. The association with educated celebrities led to the theory that only smart people got hay fever, a theory propounded in the Cincinnati Star (August 21, 1877):
A man who cannot get up a reasonably severe case of hay-fever should not aspire to being considered intellectual.
The Reverend Beecher was such a noted victim that his essay on hay fever was published in the Cincinnati Gazette (October, 23 1868). Beecher described his own symptoms, offered some hypotheses as to the cause of the disease and described a veritable pharmacopeia of nostrums. His endorsement of pennyroyal suggests that his tone was not entirely serious:
You will now be in a state to use pennyroyal. As it grows everywhere abundantly do not stint yourself. Get an armful. Make a strong tea, and drink it; a strong decoction and wash in it, smell of it, rub your forehead with the leaves, and if you can, conveniently, lie down on it and roll as you may have seen a cat do with catnip.
It took centuries for medical science to figure out how allergies worked, much less how to alleviate their symptoms. Cincinnati doctors promoted a fascinating assortment of theories over the years in an ultimately futile effort to provide some relief.
One of Cincinnati’s very few woman doctors, Julia W. Carpenter, wrote to the Cincinnati Medical Journal (November 1889) to convey information she picked up from doctors tending patients at a hay fever symposium in New Hampshire:
A physician expressed some decidedly novel views on the subject of food. He attributed most diseases, including hay fever, to eating more than was needed to sustain the body, and said if hay fever subjects would eat only two light meals a day, and those of suitable food, from April until October, not one case of that disease could be found. Hundreds would be willing to try the experiment if there seemed only a moderate chance of success.
Dr. Carpenter herself preferred to apply ice packs to the base of the neck for up to 15 minutes as an effective relief. Every patient agreed that commercially available “cures” only made their hay fever worse.
It’s a wonder they survived. Among the most popular patent medicines were medical cigarettes. Sold as “catarrh cigarettes” or “cubeb cigarettes,” these non-tobacco products incorporated various herbs and spices, including a type of pepper, that provided relief through irritation of the breathing passages.
At least one company sold iodine inhalers, employing a compound known as carbolate of iodine, which was prepared by mixing iodine with carbolic acid. Sniffing a tube of this concoction not only relieved the symptoms of hay fever, but allegedly also cured halitosis!
On the theory that hay fever was caused by a type of bacteria, some sufferers tried painting their inner nostrils with a quinine solution. The Cincinnati Gazette (November 24, 1869) described how a doctor endured the treatment:
He took a saturated neutral solution of quinine sulphate in water 1:740. This excites a moderate sensation of burning in the nasal mucus membrane. Lying upon his back, he dropped four centimes of the solution by a pencil in each nostril; moving his head meanwhile in all directions, to bring the fluid thoroughly into contact with the parts, until he felt it reach the esophagus.
The Medicated Air Remedy Company, located in the Emery Hotel arcade, placed an advertisement in the Cincinnati Post (August 1, 1885) that raises as many questions as it answers:
Hay Fever can be controlled. The Air Medicator and Injector, a simple instrument by which Air is Medicated and Injected into the passageways of the head, Will Do It, and relieve the most stubborn cases quickly. Particulars and testimonials free.
Other physicians recommended cocaine or morphine. One Cincinnati doctor noted that his patient had become a morphine addict and suffered terrifying agonies during a cold-turkey withdrawal, but he wasn’t sniffling anymore.
Even tobacco gained favor as a cure for hay fever, according to the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune (July 29, 1889), but there was a catch:
A cigar smoked the last thing before going to bed has often insured a good night’s rest. But a hay-asthmatic is warned never to smoke tobacco but for his malady. Smoking should never be to him a habit or a meal, for it then ceases to be a medicine. Indeed, to him it should be a deadly drug, for it is by poisoning that it cures.
All of this led a correspondent, signing as “A Victim” to write to the Tribune (September 25, 1874):
Is there no balm in Gilead, no physician there? Can I get no cure in this fine city, which boasts of so many skillful physicians and so many men of science. I am a victim, and have been for upwards of five weeks, to this fearfully wearing and worrying disease, hay fever.
The anonymous writer’s plea was answered, in Cincinnati no less, when George Rieveschl discovered diphenhydramine, marketed as Benadryl since 1946.