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Young woman using an asthma inhaler, May 2000

Young woman using an asthma inhaler, May 2000

Credits:Science Museum, London

Drugs have been accidentally and deliberately inhaled for centuries, in forms ranging from smoke to vapour. Inhalers were developed from the late 1700s to deliver medication into the body through inhalation, or breathing through the mouth. Inhalers were associated with lung complaints, but during the 20th century they became connected with asthma treatment.

English doctor John Mudge invented the inhaler in 1778. It was based on a pewter tankard and Mudge used it to inhale opium vapour to treat coughs. During the 1800s ceramic pots such as Dr Nelson’s inhaler were used to inhale plant or chemical substances. Atomisers and nebulisers were developed in France in the mid 1800s. They were based on perfume devices and delivered drugs in a liquid spray.

The pressurised inhalers we recognise today were not developed until 1955, when American doctor George Maison invented a pressurised metered dose inhaler (MDI). Maison’s daughter had asthma, but she struggled to breathe in her medication using a nebuliser. Maison realised storing asthma drugs inside a pressurised canister meant they could be easily expelled into the lungs with one button push.

Millions worldwide now rely on inhaled medication.

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Related links

External links:


PJ Anderson, History of aerosol therapy: liquid nebulization to MDIs to DPIs, Respiratory Care, 50/9 (2005), pp 1139-1150

R Dalby & J Suman, ‘Inhalation therapy: technological milestones in asthma treatment’, Advanced Drug Delivery Reviews, 55 (2003), pp 779-791

J Grossman, ’The evolution of inhaler technology’, Journal of Asthma, 31 (1994), pp 55-64

M Jackson, Allergy: the history of a modern malady (London: Reaktion, 2006



The drawing of air or other substances into the lungs


A common condition in which the airways go into spasm and become constricted. It causes wheezing, coughing and difficulty in breathing. It is often a reaction to hypersensitivity, but can also be triggered by exercise or stress.


A drug derived from the opium poppy. It has been used to cause sleep and provide pain relief for many centuries.