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PETROMORTIS, NEW MOTORISTS' DISEASE

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

American Government

PETROMORTIS, NEW MOTORISTS' DISEASE

The New York Times
January 2, 1916


Automobile Is Responsible for It, Says Chicago Doctor, but New York Has Apparently Escaped It So Far.

Latest of the agonies which the medical profession has loaded upon the automobile is petromortis, the first malady ascribed to the free use of the spark plug, which, according to press dispatches from Chicago last week, called a Coroner into action.

This makes fully a score of diseases which issue out of the bonnet of the horseless car with the rapidity of those pests of mankind that flew from the casket of Pandora.

Eyes and ears, nose and throat, legs and arms, lungs and nerves, and many functions of the human engine and chassis have given grave concern to the disciples of the healing art and caused them to raise their voices in solemn warning.

Nobody knows how bad an automobile is for the human system better than the average physician, for he nearly always owns one or yearns to do so. He speeds over country roads and through the arteries of the great city, and none is more deeply concerned than he is when the police put a tourniquet on the pulse of traffic.

According to Dr. John D. Ellis, a professor in the Department of Occupational Diseases in Rush Medical College in Chicago, a prominent lawyer of that city came to his end from petromortis, of the inhalation of gasoline fumes. The man had spent the night in a garage in which there was an automobile whose engine was running with might and main. The vapors arising from the combustion were, according to his view, emitting certain noxious products. Chemists do not exactly grasp what the trouble was, but the Chicago physician is confident of his ground.

That the fumes from the exhaust of an automobile are not tonics is well known. The remarks which pedestrians make as they get a whiff of them show that they are hard on the throat and irritating to the temperament. When the vapors are mingled with smoke from oil a visible rise in temperature is experienced by all who happen to be behind the offending car, and the police so often quicken to such activity that somebody is arrested.

The effect of the fumes of gasoline combustion, however, has been considered for several years by specialists of this and other cities, but without reference to fatal results.

Dr. D. Bryson Delevan of this city discussed in a paper read by him before the American Laryngological Association the effect of motoring on the upper air passages. He referred to the unpleasant odors of the vapors and their harsh and irritating effect on the mucous membranes of the nose and throat. The air currents and the dust have a still more marked influence. The particles of dust are now kept out of the eyes pretty effectively by goggles, which are often surrounded by felt or wool to prevent the small grains from working in under the rims. The face is often protected by guards. But so far no respirator has been invented to make the motorist thoroughly happy.

If the fumes of gasoline are to be seriously considered as a factor in modern automobile ills, one must go for his morning spin with all protection against evil gases just as if he were in the trenches of Europe. No one doubts that there come periods of dryness to the throat from prolonged rides in automobiles, but happily there are dispensaries along the main traveled ways where throat treatment among congenial surroundings may be readily obtained.

Specialists have also pointed out that rapid riding in an automobile produces tinnitus, a certain ringing or jingling in the ears. It is a matter of official record that when one has recently acquired an especially high powered car he is affected with a peculiar deafness and cannot hear even loud voices of warning and the shrilling of official whistles. Often these sufferers have to be overtaken in motorcycles before their sense of hearing returns.

That high speed in automobiles often produces a severe nerve strain has been noted by neurologists, and papers have been read upon this subject by before their learned societies. The neurasthenic conditions are generally associated with the stress and storm of modern civilization. In certain nervous affections, however, there is that certain unconscious wish to be constantly in rapid motion, which is observed in speed maniacs.

When the motor car was younger and mankind was less accustomed to handling it, many neurologists referred to the tensity of nerves and of a featured expression commonly called "automobile face." This is due to the constant effort and the concentration of the will to the task of mastering unaccustomed tasks. The tightly drawn muscles, the protruding eyes, the open mouth, are aspects of the automobile face which are unpleasant and indicate a tremendous strain. Where the automobilist is more or less oblivious to his surroundings and is occupied with the intricacies of his car, the workings of his countenance are unpleasant to witness.

In the early years of motoring, physicians were much concerned about inflammation of the nasal passages and the frontal sinus, but lately there has not been so much trouble along those lines on account of the introduction of the windshield. These ailments were caused by the lodging of germs in the throat or nose, hurled by the force of the wind.

Surgeons have been deeply interested in anatomical troubles which grew out of the automobile. One of the common accidents, before the coming of the self-starter, was "chauffeurs' fracture." The operator of the car in turning the starting handle would often let his hand slip, and the result would be a sharp blow on the forearm, which would break the radius in a peculiar manner.

The French surgeons have written important papers about this fracture. An interesting contribution to the literature of the chauffeurs' fracture was made by Dr. William S. Thomas of this city, who also published X-ray pictures in The Medical Record of broken radii and ulnae which had come under his observation.

The most recent ailment is described as chauffeurs' knee, the symptoms of which were set forth last month in The New York Medical Journal by Dr. Gustav F. Boehme, a neurologist connected with the West Side German Dispensary. Chauffeurs' knee, as he remarks, is not unlike tango foot, which is now rapidly disappearing, and was first described by him. It more closely resembles that prosaic ailment, housemaids' knee. Dr. Boehme says that within the last few months many chauffeurs have come to the dispensary and complained of pains in the knee caused by the operation of the pedals. Often the trouble does not appear when the motorist is following his usual gait, but manifests itself when he climbs stairs. He has prescribed for this complaint a cessation from driving and the application of a solution of sub-acetate of lead and opium. To prevent permanent stiffness of the knee he suggests the knee gets passive massage or the baking of the affected member.

The consensus of the medical profession seems to be that despite the ills which are from time to time catalogued as coming from the modern automobile it is in reality a boon to mankind. Suitable clothing, the protection of the eyes, ears, and nose, and the development of the motor car's mechanism to such an extent that the strain on rider and driver is constantly reduced have all contributed to enhancing the benefits of automobile riding as an exercise.

Dr. Delevan and others have written about the merits of the limousine, which can be properly heated and so ventilated that for persons who cannot stand the direct exposure to the open air many of its benefits can be obtained.

Dr. P. G. Heinemann of the University of Georgia, in The Popular Science Monthly, gives an appreciation of the automobile viewed from the standpoint of public health. He declares that if it had done nothing else, it had improved the sanitary condition of city streets and country roads, and that its continued use in years to come will greatly cut down the amount of disease of germ origin.

It is significant that the more that physicians and surgeons write about the maladies and the breakages ascribed to the swiftly speeding car, the more they themselves fly into the face of the danger. The automobile brings to them, to us all, the thrill of rhythmic motion and the joy of the open road.



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