This section is from the book "Materia Medica And Therapeutics Inorganic Substances", by Charles D. F. Phillips. Also available from Amazon: Materia medica and therapeutics.
The burning of sulphur for the prevention or cure of infectious disorder long preceded any modern scientific inquiry. The Chinese esteemed it highly in prehistoric times. Ulysses, according to Homer, employed it to disinfect his palace after slaughtering the suitors, calling it "the remedy of all evils, and cure of all sores" ("Odyssey," Book xxii., line 481, etc.). Ovid praises it in the "Fasti," and Pliny in his "Natural History;" but it is within quite recent years, and since the recognition of a "germ theory" in disease, that the systematic use of sulphurous acid, within, as well as without, has been placed upon a logical basis or fairly pressed upon the profession as a method of treatment.
When cattle plague was epidemic, Dr. Dewar found the best results from fumigating cattle sheds with sulphurous acid. His own cattle never suffered, and "a large dairy, notorious for thirty years for mortality among its cows (from pleuro-pneumonia), and which for eight years of the then tenant's occupancy had never been free from disease for a month, in which sixteen cows had lately died, the last, three days before fumigation began; this dairy from that time till the date of writing had been perfectly healthy." He states also that "an epidemic of diphtheria was cut short by it; two cases having occurred in one house within twenty-four hours, and no others after sulphur-fumigations." Mr. Pair-man reports similar experience, but it must be said that neither author, however earnest and truthful in reality, writes in such a manner as to convince the profession, and hence, perhaps, they have not yet widely influenced ordinary practice.
The variola epidemic, arrested on the coast of Iceland by Dr. Hjalte-lin, seems to me admissible evidence of the value of the gas, though even this arrest has by some been attributed to the quarantine and isolation enforced. Twenty-two cases were brought on shore from the fishing vessels; seven were confluent; only one died (moribund on admission); in no instance did the disease spread. A workman employed in the hospital did not catch small-pox, although shortly after he proved susceptible to vaccination; in every case the attack was quickly and favorably modified: results which may fairly be connected with the treatment- constant use of sulphur fumes in the air, and the giving of sulphurous solution internally (British Medical Journal, ii., 1871). (An epidemic of small-pox in the last century - 1707 - destroyed one-fourth of the population of the same country).
Dr. A. W. Foote, during the last epidemic of variola in Dublin, endeavored to carry out a thorough disinfectant treatment in his wards at the Meath Hospital, giving sulpho-carbolates as well as sulphurous acid, applying the latter locally, and burning sulphur three or four times a day; he treated 59 cases, of which 24 were confluent, 6 semi-confluent, and 11 died, and he concluded that the treatment was of value, and that sulphur vapor acted "as a prophylactic," but was irritating to bronchitic subjects. This fact is important, for in confluent small-pox, laryngitis is a frequent and serious complication (Dublin Journal and Medical Times, April, 1872).
On the other hand, we have to note unsatisfactory results from the use of similar treatment during an epidemic at Trinidad. Dr. Bakewell, though not furnishing many details, states that he treated twenty-five patients with sulphur-fumigations and sulphurous acid, apparently "without any effect" (Medical Times, i., 1872).
The experience of Mr. Fergus as to disinfection after an epidemic of scarlatina is very favorable: upwards of 4,000 blankets and other articles of infected bedding and clothing were exposed thoroughly for four hours to the fumes of burning sulphur, "with complete success" (Practitioner, i., 1877). He is accustomed to depend on a short personal exposure to sulphur fumes after visiting an infectious case, and has never conveyed infection in his own person. He lays stress upon an important point, inattention to which might possibly account for some failure: the vapor should be used at intervals for half to one hour at a time, and at its full strength, rather than by being constantly given off at low tension - the latter method is apt to be ineffective, as well as more likely to give rise to unpleasant sulphur combinations.
The acid bleaches vegetable colors, and corrodes metals, etc., but not so markedly as to cause inconvenience in practice. The pernicious effect on human air-passages, formerly attributed by high authorities to effective sulphur vapor has been quite disproved. Dr. Angus Smith says, "This acid gas is an irritant, and causes coughing, which becomes painful and dangerous according to the amount used, and as it is destructive to animal structures it does not seem advisable to use it more than can be avoided" (On Disinfectants): such an opinion has doubtless told against its use, but after the observations of Dewar, Pairman, Fergus, and others, must now be modified.