In search of the Edinburgh origins of Dr Nelson’s Inhaler

Mark Sanders, Alexis Harper

The 25th anniversary of the conference coincides with the 150th year of availability of the breakthrough device, Dr. Nelson’s Improved Inhaler. World Wide Web (time-limited literature and general) and genealogical searches; publishing archive, digitized historical book and catalogue material reviews, and personal communication inquiries revealed a list of 11 individuals licensed to practise medicine who could be named inventor. The most likely candidate for the eponymous creator is David Hume Nelson, born and qualified M.D. in Edinburgh. These credentials give lie to a mid-life of adversity and tragedy, but ultimately of professional respect and fulfilment. In his early twenties, in 1834, David Nelson married widow, Lucy Beaumont, 15 years his senior. Living in London, and with four children over the next 6-7 years, Nelson earned his living as a ‘Medical’. But, in 1842, Nelson was convicted of stealing £60 from a loan society and sentenced to two years’ hard labour. During his incarceration three of his children, all boys, died within a three-day period. By 1849, however, a quite splendid reversal in fortunes had taken place with Nelson qualified in medicine and appointed physician to the Queen’s Hospital in Birmingham and academic Professor in Queen’s College; rising, in 1865, to Chair of Medicine. Despite glowing testimonials and a BMJ obituary, there was reference neither to his criminal past nor his possible inventorship of the Inhaler: perhaps in the mind of the man and the Establishment, one cancelled the other, but what a fascinating man of our conference city.

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