How Charcoal “Pencils” Became A Cure For Infections

It used to be that a simple infection could kill you. A surgical procedure like an abortion or cesarean section—even just the act of giving birth—had a high mortality rate. Why? No antibiotics, which led to infections that started within the uterus, away from easy irrigation and treatment. Endometritis, the medical term for uterine infection, is easily treatable today but it used to be deadly.

The cure for infections, before antibiotics

In 1930, Dr. Nahmmacher of Germany found a way to treat uterine infections by using what he called “charcoal pencils.” These “pencils” were made by mixing the activated charcoal powder with water and starch, which was then poured onto baking sheets, and then baked into the long, thin shape of a pencil. These charcoal pencils were then inserted into the uterus of the patient when an infection was detected.

He tested his charcoal pencils on women who had developed septic endometritis (uterine infection) from illegal abortions. One of his published studies on the subject can be found here.

How did it work?

A few of these pencils were inserted into the uterus as soon as an infection was detected. The charcoal pencil would soften and begin to adsorb bacteria. This resulted in an immediate cessation of odor and a fever drop in a matter of days. Once Dr. Nahmmacher began to employ his charcoal pencil therapy, no further patients of his died from uterine infection.

This therapy was also used to reduce fever in mothers after birth. As soon as a foul-smelling odor or discharge and low-grade fever were detected, the patient was treated with a week of bed rest with a raised head to promote drainage, an ice bag applied to the pelvis, and charcoal in the uterus. In all cases, Dr. Nahmmacher reported almost an immediate cessation of odor and a normal temperature within a day or two. In over 90 percent of cases, it was unnecessary to insert charcoal pencils more than once. (Thrash, A. MD & Thrash, C., MD (1988), Charcoal, p. 80)

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