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Hyperbaric chambers - 19th Century history of hyperbaric medicine

In the 1830's, France led the new fashion in Hyperbaric Medicine. Hyperbaric chamber exposures of between 2 and 4 atmospheres absolute were stated to increase the circulation to the internal organs, improve the cerebral blood flow, and produce a feeling of well being.

Junod (1834) first made these observations, and they were taken up avidly by his colleagues, Tabarie and Pravaz. In 1837, Pravaz built a large hyperbaric chamber using it to treat a variety of ailments. The chambers were promoted and used specifically for pulmonary diseases, including tuberculosis, laryngitis, tracheitis and pertussis, as well as apparently unrelated diseases such as deafness, cholera, rickets, menorrhagia and conjunctivitis.

Fontaine (1877) developed the first mobile hyperbaric operating theatre and by this time hyperbaric chambers were available in all major European cities. Interestingly, there was no general rationale for hyperbaric treatments and as a result, prescriptions varied from one physician to another. In those days, no methods were available to estimate the partial pressure of oxygen in blood, which at 2 ATA of air is about double that at sea level. In comparison, if pure oxygen is breathed at 2 ATA, the partial pressure of oxygen in the arterial blood is twelve times higher than normal.

The chamber was recommended to facilitate the reduction of hernia, and for patients with asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis and anemia. Twenty-seven operations were performed within a 3 month period in this chamber. Success was so great that a large hyperbaric surgical amphitheatre which would hold 300 people was planned, although never actually came into being. Fontaine had an accident whilst at the Pneumatic Institute which resulted in his death, the first physician martyr to Hyperbaric Medicine.

Williams, in the British Medical Journal of 1885, made a comment, which would be thought by many to be applicable today, "The use of atmospheric air under different degrees of atmospheric pressure, in the treatment of disease, is one of the most important advances in modern medicine and when we consider the simplicity of the agent, the exact methods by which it may be applied, and the precision with which it can be regulated to the requirements of each individual, we are astonished that in England this method of treatment has been so little used".

Hyperbaric Chambers in America 1860 - 1940 »