AIRASE is pleased each week to present to subscribers the most current research from the website of the National Library of Medicine: Every week, a search will show a varying number (7 to 13) of new studies that have been uploaded to the site.

But what about the oldest essential oil research on PubMed? A search for “essential oil” resulted in 12,735 studies (as of 4-8-13). Navigating to the last page, the distinction of the oldest study goes to Henry Graves Bull, MD, in the September 11, 1844, issue of theProvincial Medical and Surgical Journal, printed in London. If the reader happens to be devoted to Agatha Christie mysteries, this study may be of interest.

But a point of clarification must be made. If one hears today about almond essential oil, it will undoubtedly be SWEET almond oil. The distinction is necessary because BITTER almond oil is a deadly poison, which made it a plot point in many murder mysteries. Bitter almond oil can break down into a form that includes cyanide or hydrocyanic acid, also known as prussic acid. Dr. Bull reported on the “Fatal poisoning from fifteen or twenty drops of the essential oil of bitter almonds”—the suicide of a young woman told in excruciating detail. (If you are writing a murder mystery, you should be able to locate the study from hints above; but for gentle readers, AIRASE declines to link to it.)

The sixth from the last study of 12,735 is the one we will investigate. It comes from theBritish Medical Journal, January 15, 1927,1 and is an intriguing look at medicine at that time. Alexander Cannon reported on a cholera treatment developed by John W. Tomb, chief sanitary officer of the Anasol Mines Board of Health in Bengal, India. Tomb’s cholera treatment appeared in the Indian Medical Gazette, May 1924, titled “A Further Note on the Efficacy of the Essential Oils in the Prevention and Treatment of Cholera.”

Cholera is a disease that afflicts 3-5 million people each year, killing between 100,000 and 130,000. The main symptoms are vomiting and watery diarrhea. The disease is caused by the bacteria Vibrio cholerae.2

Cholera drawing from a French journal, December 1, 1912

Since the Indian journal does not provide access to its archives, the Cannon article from the British Medical Journal listed on PubMed is all that is currently accessible to us. We have included the link to a PDF of the study.3

Below is what Alexander Cannon wrote about this essential oil treatment for cholera. Here is the formula as found in the British Medical Journal article.
Spt. aether                                           ? xxx        [30 drops]
Ol. caryoph                                          ? v           [5 drops]
Ol. cajap. [cajep. or cajup., unclear]    ? v           [5 drops]
Ol. junip                                               ? v           [5 drops]
Acid. Sulph. Aromat.                            ? xv          [15 drops]

The British Pharmacophoeia from 1898 helps explain the abbreviated terms and odd symbol. This reference work states that aether (ether) is a “volatile liquid prepared from ethylic alcohol.”4 Spt. aether seems to reference the alcohol (or “spirit”). Ol. caroph is the oil of caryophyllum, according to a list of official abbreviation given to pharmacy dispensers and which Henrietta’s Herbal Homepage5 calls the oil of clove, as does the 1898 British Pharmacopoeia.6

Ol. cajap. is Oleum cajuputi, “the oil distilled from the leaves of Melaleuca leucadendron,Linn.” according to the 1898 British Pharmacopoeia.7 Ol. junip. is juniper oil or oil ofJuniperus communis Linn. according to the British Pharmacopoeia.8

The last ingredient is “Acid. Sulph. Aromat.” The 1898 British Pharmacopoeia lists this concoction as Acidum Sulphuricum Aromaticum. The formula consists of: “Tincture of Ginger 10 fl. oz.; Spirit of Cinnamon ½ fl. oz.; Alcohol (90%) 29 ½ fl. oz.; Sulphuric Acid, 3 fl. oz.” 9 The dose is listed as 5 to 20 minims. (And no, we did not recognize this term either.)

A capital M (see above in the cholera formula), which is elongated on the right, [?], is the abbreviation for minim:10 which is one drop as a unit of measure.11  Hence, the recipe calls for 30, 5, 5, 5, and 15 drops of the listed ingredients. (This archaic symbol is no longer used in pharmacology.)

The author of the study, Alexander Cannon, states that “One drachm, in half an ounce of water, to be taken every half-hour (in case of cholera); total average dose 8 drachms. One drachm, in half an ounce of water, daily, is an excellent preventative.”2

What on earth is a drachm? The 9th edition of the 1888 The Art of Dispensing (1915) defines this measure as “drachm= 60 grains by weight or 480 minims by measure.”13Drachm is the British spelling for dram. A fluid dram (Brit.) is 1/8 of a fluid ounce. (Also be prepared to see “percent” written as “per cent.”)

While the archaic terms make understanding liquid totals difficult for the reader, Cannon’s faith in Dr. Tomb’s treatment is unshakeable. He states that “it is claimed (and here has been proved) that in 95 per cent. of cases recovery will be secured within a period of seven hours from the onset of symptoms. No special care need be paid to subsequent dieting. Vomiting, purging, and intestinal pains appear to be immediately controlled by this mixture. As little supervision is requisite, the value of the method in mass treatment of natives is obvious.”14 (Dr. Cannon’s reference to “natives” refers to the natives of India and China in the 1920s’ British parlance.)

Cannon points out that current belief (1927) is that the “cholera vibrio” bacteria (in today’s medical terminology: Vibrio cholerae) is found in stools (feces) for as long as 44 days after the patient has begun convalescence. Then he states, “Bacteriological examination so far shows that following the administration of Dr. Tomb’s mixture the vibrio ceases to exist after a period from six to twelve hours from the commencement of the treatment, thus apparently reducing the quarantine period from forty-four days to twelve hours.”15

Dr. Cannon, M.B., Ch.B, Leeds, (the equivalent of a U.S. MD) was stationed in Canton, China, and listed eight case studies showing how quickly and effectively this essential oil formula worked on cholera. The only patient who died refused treatment until 24 hours after symptoms appeared. (He died before intravenous saline injections could be given.) Following are two of the cases Dr. Cannon lists.

“Case 1—A man, aged 35, had violent cramps, vomiting, and rice-water stools. On microscopic examination, the cholera vibrio was found to be present. The essential oil treatment was given within two hours of the commencement of symptoms. Six hours later, no vibrio were to be found.

“Case 3—Lieutenant B., R.N. [Royal Navy], aged 26, also had symptoms similar to those of Case 1. His doctor first treated him with opiates, but when he became worse the essential oil treatment was resorted to, and after eight doses the patient began ‘to feel himself again.’ Although both the surgeon commander and I had confirmed the diagnosis by microscope, when the patient was examined at the Navy Hospital, Hong-Kong, eleven hours later, no vibrios were found.”16

One highly important finding that Dr. Cannon observed from this cholera outbreak in China needs to be highlighted. In the study he writes, “The few cases of cholera we have had here had not taken the essential oil mixture once a day as a preventative.”17 (Emphasis added.) He reported eight cases, with just one man who died because he refused this treatment for 24 hours.

How amazing that the essential oils of clove, melaleuca, and juniper in this formula were so effective against cholera. The Acidum Sulphuricum Aromaticum as a carrier itself contains ginger and cinnamon extracts. These two ingredients are also valuable essential oils.

Cannon closes his article with, “This treatment could no doubt be used in some kinds of intestinal toxaemia and in certain influenza and rheumatic conditions. There seems to be no doubt that as a preventative and cure for cholera it is very efficient.”18

Perhaps looking at nearly 90-year-old research is a worthwhile endeavor after all!