Tuesday, May 22, 2012

1851: Dr. Salter, the famous asthma doctor

Figure 1 -- Dr. Henry Hyde Salter.

As a kid he suffered mightily from asthma, and when he grew up he made his disease the focus of his life.  He wrote a book that became the most famous asthma book of his era. His name was Dr. Henry Hyde Salter, the famous asthma doctor.

He was born on November 2, 1823. Within only a few weeks of his birth he suffered a bout of whooping cough that ultimately lead him to a lifetime of suffering from asthma. (1)

His dad was a prominent surgeon.  His grandpa, uncle and several members of his family were also physicians.  So it wasn't surprising that, after graduating from the University of London, he entered King's college to study medicine. (1)

He earned his medical degree in 1851 and soon opened a medical practice.  It probably didn't take him long to realize he had a special sort of empathy towards his asthmatic patients, particularly asthmatic children.

From a photograph of an asthmatic, whose disease
dated from whooping-cough at three months old.
(One might wonder if this is a photo of a young
Dr. Salter.) (6, page 115)
In 1851 he became assistant physician at King's College Charing Cross Hospital, and in 1852 he became assistant physician to Robert Bentley Todd (1816-92) in New York.  He sat in on Todd's lectures and took copious notes "almost verbatim," which were published in the Medical Gazette and ultimately this "added much to Dr. Todd's reputation. (1)

Likewise, in 1851, he became assistant-editor of the "Encyclopedia of Anatomy and Physiology."  He wrote articles on the tongue and pancreas, and he read and edited the entire collection.  (1)

In 1854 he returned to King's College where he lectured in physiology, physiological anatomy and medicine for the next 12 years.  His efforts as a writer, lecturer and physician earned him a spot as the youngest member of the Royal College of Chest Physicians in 1856 at the age of 33.  He gave a lecture to this group on dyspnea in 1866. (1)

Yet it was asthma that was his "special interest" in many of his research and study projects. (2) He gave many lectures, most about diseases of the thorax -- and asthma.  (5)

Dr. Salter's special interest in asthma gave him a unique inside take on what it was like to have asthma. This, coupled with his exemplary skill at writing, made him the ideal person to write on the subject.

In his book he provided some of the best and most vivid descriptions of asthma up to that time, as shown here:
"But not only is asthma not an uncommon disease, but it is one of the direst suffering; the horrors of the asthmatic paraxysm far exceed any acute bodily pain; the sense of impending suffocation, the agonizing struggle for the breath of life, are so terrible, that they cannot even be whitnessed without sharing in the sufferers distress." (6, page 17)
His description of the suffering was likewise vivid.  He wrote:
 "With a face expressive of the intensist anxiety, unable to move, speak, the head thrown back between elevated shoulders, the muscles of respiration rigid and tightened like cords, and tugging and straining for every breath that is drawn, the surface pallid or livid, cold and sweating -- such are the signs by which this dreadful suffering manifests itself." (6, page 18) 
As well as was his overall description of the asthma paroxysm.  He wrote:
But the dyspnoea of asthma tells a plainer tale than this; it tells us not only what it is not, but what it is. It gives the most positive evidence of narrowing of the air-passages. The asthmatic's breathing is what our forefathers called "strait," what we call " tight;" he feels as if a weight were on his sternum, as if his chest were compressed, as if a cord bound him, as if it would be the greatest relief to him if some one would cut his breast open and allow it to expand; he rushes to the window to get air, he cannot tolerate people or curtains about him, his clothes are loosened, and all the muscles of respiration tug and strain their utmost to fill his chest. But he can neither get air in nor out, he can neither inspire nor expire—his respiration is almost at a dead lock; he cannot blow his nose, ean hardly cough or sneeze, cannot smoke a pipe, and if his fire is failing, cannot blow it up; he has hardly air enough to produce the laryngeal vibrations of speech. (6, pages 37-38)
He even went as far to describe what life was like for an asthmatic between attacks.  He wrote:
"And even in the intervals of health, the asthmatics sufferings do not cease; he seems well, he goes about like his fellows and among them, but he knows he is altogether different; he bears about his disease within him wherever he goes; he knows he is struck... he is conscious that he is not sound... he only knows that a certain percentage of his future life must be dedicated to suffering; he cannot make engagements except with a proviso; and from many of the occupations of life he is cut off; the recreations, the enjoyments, the indulgences of others he dare not take; his usefulness is crippled, his life is marred; and if he knows anything of the nature of is complaint, he knows that his suffering may terminatein a closing scene worse only than the present." (4, page 17, 18)
Any person who ever suffered from an attack of asthma, or ever witnessed one, could easily relate to what Salter described.  It was such exemplary asthma prose that proved to his readers that he knew what he was writing about.  It was such that made him to be the famous asthma doctor.

After years spent suffering, and years spent studying his patients, and performing interviews and autopsies, he put his best asthma knowledge together during the 1950s in a series of articles that were published in medical journals throughout the decade.  Each article was ultimately turned into a chapter in his 1864 book "On Asthma:  It's Pathology and Treatment."

During the last four years of his life his asthma took a turn for the worse.  During the night he'd spend time leaning against the bed post with his shouders hunched while smoking datura leaves. During the day he ate lightly, and continued to work as a physician and to give lectures.

In 1871 he became thinner and weaker and was diagnosed with typphoid fever.  Yet ultimately it was discovered he developed a lung abcess and passed away on August 30, 1871, at the young age of 48.

Dr. Salter's book is referenced in nearly every article, every chapter, and every book on asthma for the rest of the decade.  Even the great Dr. William Henry Osler referenced Dr. Salter when he wrote his textbook for medical students.

Further reading:
  • 1864:  Dr. Salter offers proof asthma is nervous
  • 1864: Dr. Salter proves nervous theory of asthma (1/5/16)
  • 1864: Dr. Salter disproves ancient asthma theories (12/30/14)
  • 1864: Dr. Salter's Asthma Features (2/14/14)
  • 1864: Dr. Salter's Varieties of Asthma (2/20/14)
  • 1864  Dr. Salter's asthma triggers (2/27/14)
  • 1864: Dr. Salter's asthma signs and symptoms (3/6/14)
  • 1864: Dr. Salter's Consequences of asthma (3/13/14)
  • 1864: Dr. Salter's Asthma Remedies (3/27/14)
  • 1864: Dr. Salter's prognosis for asthmatics (4/10/14)
Click here for more asthma history.

  1. "The Late Henry Hyde Salter," Medical Times and Gazette, Sept. 13, 1871. 
  2. McCulough, David, "Mornings on Horseback," 1981, New York
  3. Sakula, Alex, "Henry Hyde Salter (1823-71) a biographical sketch," Thorax, 1985; 40; pages 887-888.
  4. Salter, Henry Hyde, "On Asthma:  Its Pathology and Treatment," 1861, London, Philadelphia
  5. Kidd, G.H. Dr., "On the pathology of Asthma," Dublin Quarterly Journal of Med. Science," 1861, May,
  6. Salter, Henry Hyde, "Asthma: It's Pathology and Treatment," 1864, Philadelphia, Blanchard and Lea

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