Samuel Solly and the Smoking Question

By George Solly

This article was published in the April 2020 edition of Soul Search, the Journal of The Sole Society

In the early nineteenth century most who smoked used pipes or cigars rather than cigarettes. Smoking was considered a comradery, nerve-calming and a beneficial habit.
In December 1856, however, Samuel Solly, FRS, senior surgeon at St Thomas’s wrote in the Lancet:
…it is my business to point out to you all the various and insidious causes of general paralysis and smoking is one of them.’
Samuel Solly also stated that there was:
…no single vice which does as much harm as smoking.
However, many disagreed with him. Some 15 years later in the Franco – Prussian war of 1870-71, The British Medical Journal, rival to the Lancet, was more ambivalent about smoking;
The marvellous success of the German soldiers on a diet of black bread, pease-pudding and 12 cigars a day, has created a strong reaction in favour of the weed.
Cigarettes became more fashionable in the 1860s, but some considered them to be a cultural metaphor for decadence and national decline. Even 40 years later, moderate use was thought practically harmless, even beneficial for soldiers in the 1900 Boer War relieving tension, easing monotony and providing solace.
The Anti-Tobacco Society was started in 1853, but it was Samuel Solly’s articles in the Lancet in 1856 and subsequent years that really effected sentiment against smoking, an issue only relatively recently ‘resolved’ with the Health Act of 2006 which led to the banning of smoking in public spaces. Those of us of a certain age will remember smoking even in hospitals; indeed, my wife’s non-smoking grandmother in the 1970s was even advised by her GP to take up smoking to calm her nerves!
Samuel Solly and I are related through a common ancestor. Isaac Solly 1724-1802, the first Baltic Merchant was Samuel’s grandfather and Isaac was my 5 x great uncle. Isaac Solly has appeared twice in recent Soul Search issues: ‘The Two Isaac Sollys’ by George Solly, August 2016, and ‘Isaac Solly, Railway Entrepreneur’ by Bob Solly, December 2015.

Samuel Solly. Photo Moira & Haigh, Wellcome Collection.

Ashes to Ashes by Lock and Reynolds
The Lancet
The British Medical Journal