Fresh Air in Even the Dustiest of Sources

Breathing Exercises, Muskoka Cottage Sanatorium, Source: Archives of Ontario F 1369-1-0-1

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by Nina Bozzo,

The Canada Lancet, a medical journal established in 1872, is not exactly the first place you would look to as a primary source for environmental history research. Yet from 1872 to 1900 there were over a hundred articles that discussed fresh air. I decided to look at how doctors referred to fresh air and how this reflected understandings of nature. Throughout the nineteenth century, focus on the benefits of nature evolved into medical fields like naturopathy, as well as nature and fresh air movements that promoted country living, better ventilation in homes and buildings, and even the creation of parks as a means of bringing nature to city dwellers.  The Canada Lancet offers new insights to medical treatment and the use of nature in public health and daily life.

Physicians thought that fresh air was an integral resource in the cure and prevention of illness.  Articles in the Canada Lancet claimed that a deficit of fresh air caused illness, just as daily intakes of fresh air promoted health. While doctors often suggested that patients practice several other hygienic principles, including exposure to sunlight, and proper dietary and sleep schedules, they prescribed fresh air in the most versatile ways.  Doctors wrote that fresh air, preferably in cold currents, removed foul and stale air that could cause illness in the home and lead to epidemics.[1]  Articles sighted that corsets were detrimental to health because they minimized the ability of women to spend time in nature, and take in deep breaths of “pure” air.[2] Fresh air treated constitutional weaknesses, psychological ailments, and physical deformities.  Doctors focused on ways to get the patient outside in the sunlight and fresh air rather than creating other remedies.  For example, the Thomas Hip Splint allowed patients to spend time outdoors, curing any spine curvatures, and facilitating the natural healing process.[3]  Spending time outside was the quintessential part of any treatment and while a lack of fresh air could cause illness, a great deal of fresh air could prevent it.

An example of the type of tree house used for "open-air living. (Thomas Carrington, Fresh Air and How to Use it, (Philadelphia: W.M.F. Fell Co., 1912), iv.)
An example of the type of tree house used for “open-air living. (Thomas Carrington, Fresh Air and How to Use it, (Philadelphia: W.M.F. Fell Co., 1912), iv.)

Physicians in the Canada Lancet revealed that society believed in the restorative powers of nature.  Many thought that air could save, sustain, and enrich lives.  Doctors, architects, and politicians alike were preoccupied with the infusion of fresh air into urban settings, as well as finding ways to be closer to nature.  Efforts promote health and learning entailed better access to fresh air for children, and resulted in changes to schools.  In addition to increasing time spent outdoors, schools calculated fresh air required per pupil, and built systems to conduct heating and ventilation for optimal health benefits.[4]  The medicinal effects of fresh air encouraged trips to the country, social fresh air programs for children, and even evolved into curious trends such as building tree houses. For many participating in the fresh air movement, the treehouse was not a joke, or child’s playtime hideaway, it was the pursuit for “open-air” living. [5]  There could never be an overabundance of fresh air, in medical opinion, and this reasoning also led to the installation of sanatoriums in the countryside.

In the Canada Lancet, doctors wrote that fresh air tempered the effects of anesthetic gasses, eliminated germs from sick rooms, replaced the use of medicine, and had the potential to save lives. Fresh air was the only curative solution for tuberculosis until well into the twentieth century.  In Europe and North America, sanatoriums were built in the countryside for the treatment of various ailments.  The Muskoka Cottage Sanatorium opened in 1897 and was the first tuberculosis hospital of its kind built in Canada.  Designs for the hospital included large windows and open spaces to increase exposure to the vast quantities of fresh air in the area.[6]  The assertion that, “Much can be hoped for if patients are kept constantly in open air…” was reiterated numerous times within the medical texts, and epitomized in treatment methods. [7] Doctors and society recognized the benefits of nature, and increasingly attempted to harness its restorative and positive effects.

The Kendall Pavillion. Source: Pamphlet ca. 1928, Archives of Ontario
A view of the Kendall Pavillion, built with large windows and a glass front to allow for optimal amounts of sunlight and fresh air. The Muskoka Cottage Sanatorium [pamphlet, ca. 1928], Archives of Ontario
There is very little room for humour in the pages of the Canada Lancet, however, it seems that a good end to this post can be gleaned from one of the jokes that did appear. The following ribald excerpt appears in more than one of the issues: “A student, undergoing his examination, was asked what was the action of disinfectant.  He replied: “They smell so badly that the people open the windows, and fresh air gets in.”[8] While this anecdote makes light of fresh air use, and the ability of the student to answer the exam, it also emphasizes the importance of nature in medicine.  Fresh air and sunlight were natural elements that cleansed spaces and bettered public and individual health.  The idea that people were able to control these elements in human made spaces, and that their presence would help reflected inherent assumptions that nature was a powerful and positive force, yet subject to engineering for germane purposes.

Fresh air, as simplistic and integral a concept as it might be, was a serious and prevalent movement and cure-all which reflects the relationship between medicine, society, and, nature.  It also shows us that dusty, old medical journals, like the Canada Lancet, can add to our understanding of nature and fresh air, without actually exposing us to it.

[1] “The Prevention of Epidemics,” The Canada Lancet 9:7 (Mar. 1877), 218.

[2] “The American Girl,” The Canada Lancet 25:8 (Apr. 1893), 275.

[3] D.R. McKenzie, “The Prevention and Correction of Deformity in the Treatment of Hip Disease” The Canada Lancet 25:2 (Oct. 1892), 43.

[4] H.G. Ross, “Address to the Ontario Medical Association,” The Canada Lancet 31:11 (July 1899), 1267.

[5] One book featured the image of, “A house among the leaves, twelve feet above the ground, for open-air living and sleeping.” Thomas Carrington, Fresh Air and How to Use it, (Philadelphia: W.M.F. Fell Co., 1912), iv.

[6] Medical Records at the Archives of Ontario, “Tuberculosis Records,”

[7] Charles Sheard, “Care and Prevention,” The Canada Lancet 31:11 (July 1899), 1271-2.

[8] “Disinfectant,” The Canada Lancet 6:1 (Sept. 1873), 34.

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Nina Bozzo

Nina is a PhD student in History at the University of Western Ontario.

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