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A Victorian Scrapbook

A Scrapbook of Newspaper Articles Compiled by George Burgess (1829-1905)

Victorian Health and Education

The Human Body - Man's Lungs and Breath

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The Human Body - Man's Lungs and Breath

Transcript from original newspaper article: -


The brain and nerves work the body with will or spirit, sensitive and insensitive emotion. The lungs work it with air, and, like the nerves, they are partly under the influence of the will, and partly not. We breathe independent of will; but if our will-nerves were not also connected with the lungs we should have no power over our breath, so that we could not speak, sing, whistle, or do anything with the lungs but breathe. As it is, we have great and marvellous control over them, so that they obey instantaneously the command of the will, and utter words of infinitely variegated sound and meaning with the rapidity of a telegraph.

The nose is the real opening into the lungs, for it is always open for breath. We can breathe by the mouth, but it is not the proper organ of breathing. The nose is the true representative of the door of life, for life is breath, or as Dr Wilkinson quaintly expresses himself, a habit of breathing. The ears may be shut, and the eyes may be shut, but the door of life must ever be open, whether we sleep or wake.

That door opens into the windpipe, at the top of which is a cartilaginous box, curiously constructed and fitted with muscles for producing sound; it is called the larynx. Below that the windpipe goes down like a tree growing downwards, and divides itself into two branches, one for the right lung, and another for the left; and these again subdivide themselves into two; and their subdivision are again subdivided; and again and again in succession subdivided, till they become very small, and very numerous; and at the last subdivision, innumerable small air cells appear, like fruit on the branches, as many as 18,000 at the end of one branch; and therefore, according to M. Rochoux, as quoted in Dr Carpenter’s Physiology, the total number of air cells in the lungs amounts to about six hundred millions. Into all these the air rushes at each inspiration, except when prevented by disease and tight lacing, or the hardness and deposits occasioned by them. The ramifications of this air tree are inconceivably numerous and minute; its mechanism is infinitely delicate; Nature delights in smallness; all her structures are built up with atoms invisibly small; she works like the smallest insect, and makes great things only with an aggregation of infinitely small ones. She is therefore infinite both ways, infinitely great, and infinitely little; and the infinitely little is quite as marvellous as the infinitely great – it is the infinitely numerous.

The air is drawn into these air-cells by means of the involuntary muscles moving the ribs and the diaphragm; but what is the use of it when it is there? It never really enters the man. These air cells are all closed doors – the man himself is inside of them; and between the inside of the man and the air cell there is a thin membrane that constitutes the wall of the cell. The air, therefore, never couches the man’s blood. He becomes consumptive, and spits blood when it does; but it has an effect on his blood, for all his blood is forced through these air cells in small pulmonary arteries, which are small as hairs at the extremities, and therefore call capillaries; and through the substance of these capillaries the air of the lungs acts on the blood, and converts the foul blood of the pulmonary arteries into the pure blood of the pulmonary veins; in other words, it converts the black blood into red blood. This it does by supplying oxygen on the one hand, and taking away carbonic acid gas on the other. This carbonic acid comes out in the breath, and its exhalation is the means by which the blood is purified. It thickens the blood – and were it not got rid of, circulation would stop.

So say the chemists; and no doubt they are right so far as they go; but how far can they go? How the oxygen acts upon the blood and purifies it, and how or whether it becomes carbonic acid by combining with carbon in its passage or not, they cannot affirm, for there is a great deal more than oxygen or carbon to be considered in breathing. Air consists of nitrogen and oxygen; oxygen swims in nitrogen; it is dissolved in it like sugar in water. Nitrogen is the real vehicle of the atmosphere, and it is death; no animal can live in it; fire will not burn in it; it is the death-gas. Dissolve a little oxygen in this death gas and you give it life; for oxygen is a vivifying gas, and fire burns brightly in it. But there are many more things in the great atmospheric vehicle, though the chemist cannot detect them with any of his tests. The poor chemist goes into the country with a bottle, and he opens the cork and lets in the country air, and then he corks the bottle to take it home to his laboratory; and there, when he has analysed this bottleful of air, what does he find in it? nothing but his everlasting oxygen and nitrogen; the vulgar compounds of the atmosphere everywhere. If men had no noses, the chemist might affirm that there was nothing else but these two gases in his bottle of air; but fortunately for science men have noses; and so long as they have, it will be impossible for chemistry ever to ride over us. That bottle of air was filled perhaps in a garden, and the atmosphere of that garden contained the aromas of herbs innumerable – the odours of roses, violets, mignonette, mint, and tansy; an infinite host of delicate aromas which cannot be named, for each individual flower and petal, each leaf and bud, has its own peculiar breath; no two are alike. Besides, perhaps, a bean field was nigh, or a hay field and haymakers, and a cowhouse not far off, and it may be that a hop-kiln was in action, and the fragrance of drying hops had impregnated the air. It matters not what; certain we are that ten thousand times ten thousand spiritual essences were floating in that atmosphere, and every one of them left its representative in the chemist’s bottle of air; and yet when he took it to his laboratory he could find nothing in it but oxygen and nitrogen. Poor man! Luckily for us we have got noses, by which we discover that there is something else in the atmosphere than oxygen and nitrogen. And that something is an innumerable host of vivifying spirits which the blood lives upon, and drinks thirstily for its refreshment, just as the stomach drinks a refreshing beverage. It is for these aromas that we go when we go for change of air. How delicious the bean-field atmosphere! How bracing the salt-smelling air of the ocean! the heather-scented gales of the breezy mountain, laden with something that life can appreciate, that she nose can detect, but the chemistry cannot! We discover, if we will but reason, that this great vehicle called nitrogen, the death gas, is merely a huge basin in which are dissolved innumerable spirits of aromas, some cheering, some disheartening, some vivifying, others mortifying, and so mixed, that they never thoroughly become one; but in some places one, in other places another predominated, and sometimes a mixture of many predominates and this infinite variety of aromas it is which constitutes the difference between one atmosphere and another. Sometimes the aromas are very gross, taking the form of ponderable gases, like sulphuretted hydrogen and phosphuretted hydrogen, which chemistry can test; but in general they are far too delicate for the skill of the laboratory, and are only to be perceived by that great discoverer of the spiritual world in the atmosphere – the nose. Hence the nose amongst five senses is the true representative of the spirit; and the ancients, who were poets born, were aware of this; and thus we find the sweet-smelling sacrifices of early times the most acceptable offerings to the gods; and even the Shekinah of the temple stood between the two cherubim, like the nose between the eyes on the mercy-seat of the human face divine, and smelt the incense. Aroma may be said to be the transition medium between the material and the spiritual world, and into that medium the inferior animals freely enter. In the inferior classes of animals, such as fishes, we find the olfactory ganglions developed like two hemispheres in the very front of the brain; they are even larger than the brain, and they occupy the foremost place; for as the animal advances in its own element of life, it is by the sense of smell that it regulates its movements. This delicate instrument reveals the existence of a flowing stream of odour from every object that surrounds it, and from these it selects its own especial favourite, and moves infallibly towards it. The delicacy of this sense in some animals surpasses all human imagination. How the bloodhound can trace for miles the scent of blood, how the foxhound can scent the odour of the fox, and fly with the rapidity of a steam engine at the same time, is beyond all human experience to comprehend; but the fact is certain, and the inference from the fact is clear, that these delicate aromas exist in the atmosphere when we do not perceive them, and are apprehended by the inferior animals when the superior animal man has no idea of their presence. And how many more of these aromas exist in a distinct and separate condition which cannot even be perceived by the nicest animal sense! For who knows but each aroma separately exists, and never can be thoroughly blended with another so as to be altogether lost! It is an atmospheric or aerial spirit, ever present, but sometimes subdued by the stronger presence of others. This is a large and interesting sphere of speculation, but we shall not enter farther into it. The nose, however, has been too much laughed at and neglected, debased in fact by smoke, and snuff, and sewerage, and uncleanness of every description, like the spiritual world which it represents; but the plagues that ever punish this neglect of the most honourable member of the human face divine have taken ample vengeance on the outrage; and the time we hope is coming on when the nose of man will receive that respectful treatment from the laws of civilised society to which it is entitled as the for of life and the test of the spiritual world of the atmosphere in which we live.

It is not the lungs of man alone that breathe; the whole body breathes along with them. The brain breathes at every inspiration, that is to say, it heaves, it rises and falls with the inspiration and expiration of air. Motion is thus communicated to it; and every other part of the body moves in a similar manner. Hence the difficulty we experience in keeping still for one moment, that the sun may take an exact impression of our countenance and figure. The effort is painful; and were two or three minutes’ immovability required for a photographic likeness, it would be impossible. Every breath that we draw changes the outline of the whole body, and a succession of breaths would so derange the contour as to disfigure it entirely. Nor is it motion only that is communicated to the body. It really breathes; it drinks in the fragrance of the air that enters the lungs. It is that finer air that purifies the blood, and the whole blood of the human body makes the entire circuit of the veins and arteries in two minutes, or three at most. Indeed “if a solution of any salt” says Dr. Carpenter, “easily detectible in the blood, be injected into one of the large veins near the heart, it may be traced in the arterial circulation in from 15 to 20 seconds afterwards, during which interval it must have passed the whole pulmonary system of vessels, and passed through both sides of the heart.” The importance of this fact in breathing poisonous atmosphere is very great; for the communication with the vital fluid of the body is almost instantaneous; and thus our blood breathes the atmosphere we live in, and partakes of its subtlest attributes. Hence no doubt the various diseases which civilisation has introduced by its crowded dwellings, its bad circulation, and its offensive odours. This mischief it has now to undo, and to remove the diseases which itself has engendered, and which, being in the air, are best removed, not by giving the medicine to the patient, but by making the atmosphere take it.

The double circulation of man is a beautiful contrivance, of which we shall speak more fully when we come to the heart; but as it is intimately connected with the action of the lungs, we will briefly allude to it here. The blood being purified in the air cells of the lungs, goes immediately into the left side of the heart, which is the strongest side, and beats most perceptibly. Hence the vulgar belief that the heart is on the left side, though it lies precisely in the centre of the chest between the lungs. The left ventricle opens and shuts, and forces the red blood into the whole body through the arteries; these arteries end in capillaries, or the smallest hair arteries, where the blood becomes corrupt venous blood, and comes back to the heart through the veins. It enters the right side of the heart by the auricle in its most corrupt state, and thence it is immediately forced into the lungs by the right ventricle, and goes through the capillaries of the lungs by the right ventricle, and goes through the capillaries of the lungs and becomes red blood, and goes into the left side of the heart by the left auricle. Thus there are two hearts, each double – with an auricle and ventricle – a heart for circulating red blood, and one for circulating black blood; the latter circulation being very short, and confined to the lungs, requires only a weak heart, and consequently the left side of the heart has about one-third the thickness of the other in its muscle. The two systems are therefore quite the reverse of each other. The blood goes into the great systemic arteries and capillaries to be corrupted, and into the small pulmonary arteries and capillaries to be purified. And this latter purification takes place by simple exposure; it is exposed to the air in the air cells. And does not this beautifully represents the mode in which the blood of the great man of society is purified? It is by exposure also that all corruption is society is got rid of. In the old system of life circulation it was concealed like the blood in its passage to the extremities; but now, when it is forced through the lungs of the press and the mouth of man, and exposed to the public atmosphere of opinion, it goes out like the carbonic acid from the blood, and leaves the fresh and stimulating oxygen to supply its place. The universal man is constructed on the same principle as the individual man, or rather the individual man is made after the model of the universal man, and the life process of the one precisely corresponds to the life process of the other. Freedom of opinion, freedom of speech, is the breathing of the universal man; it constitutes his lungs; and every vital element of society must come through it in order to give up the poison it has contracted; and receive a substitute of a cleansing and a vivifying character. But at the same time it should be remembered that a foul atmosphere cannot thoroughly cleanse the blood, but infuses its own poison into it; and so, also, a foul public opinion is unfit to regenerate society. It has too many gross elements in its composition, that destroy the delicate aromas of the more refined natures, and subdue them by their own intensity. Oxygen, the great chemical regenerator in the atmosphere, is only so by vulgar repute in these scientific days. Its virtues are useful, but not what chemistry teaches. We doubt very much if man could even line in a pure atmosphere, chemically constructed. The vulgar regenerator, oxygen, without the aromas, would prove a demon perhaps in reality; we know not – it cannot be tested. We cannot find a chemically pure atmosphere. Well for us perhaps, because we should die as soon as we found it. We live upon aromas; and the more pure and delicate, cheerful and innocent these aromas are, the purer our blood, and the richer our life.