The Clyster Syringe

Enema syringe, circa 1800 -Museum of Heal Care at Kignston
Enema syringe, circa 1800 – Museum of Health Care at Kingston


Enemas, also known as clysters, have a fascinating history dating back to ancient times. The Egyptians were among the first to employ them as a remedy for various anal ailments like piles, providing relief and treatment for such conditions. Additionally, enemas served as an alternative method to introduce nutrients into the body during that era. Throughout the centuries, their use evolved and expanded, becoming a significant medical practice with a wide range of applications.

The Clyster syringe, (also spelled in the 17th Century, `glister’) is an old-fashioned word for enema, more particularly for enemas administered using a Clyster syringe — that is, a syringe with a rectal nozzle and a plunger.

This medical instrument has a long and fascinating history. Its purpose is to administer enemas, a medical procedure used to introduce fluids into the rectum and colon. Enemas have been employed for centuries for various therapeutic and hygienic purposes, and the Clyster syringe has played a crucial role in this practice.

Clyster Syringe, late 19th century - National Museum of American History- 2
Clyster Syringe, late 19th century – National Museum of American History

Historical Evolution

The use of enemas dates back thousands of years, with evidence of their practice found in ancient civilizations such as the Sumerians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. Early enema devices were simple vessels or tubes made from materials like clay, metal, or animal horns. The process was believed to cleanse the body, treat various ailments, and improve overall health.

Colonic irrigation (or hydrotherapy) has an ancient history but is still popular as an alternative medical procedure. Rather like an enema, it involves the introduction of water, sometimes infused with minerals or other substances, into the colon. The fluid is released after a short period, and the process is repeated several times during treatment. Current practitioners claim that the treatment helps chronic fatigue, arthritis and sinusitis, as well as leading to a general feeling of wellness.

Colonic irrigation was practised in ancient civilisations to treat constipation which was believed to cause a wide range of diseases. It is referred to in the Ancient Egyptian Ebers papyrus which dates from around 1500 B.C. The bowel and colon were cleansed using water with the addition of various herbs.

Over time, many types of apparatus have been used to administer enemas. Ancient civilisations and African and American Indian tribes were likely using hollow reeds, gourds, horns and other natural devices as enemas from early times.

Pressure enema from an animal bladder (African wooden sculpture, 19th century)
Pressure enema from an animal bladder (African wooden sculpture, 19th century)

The Clyster syringe, as we know it today, can be traced back to the late Middle Ages and Renaissance period. It consisted of a nozzle attached to a bulb or syringe-like container made from materials like glass, metal, or leather. These early designs allowed for more precise and controlled delivery of fluids compared to earlier, less sophisticated methods.

In medieval times, the earliest illustrations of enema devices depicted a straightforward design featuring a tube attached to a pig’s bladder, which served as a pump-action bulb. As time progressed, by the 1400s, simple piston syringe enemas, also known as clysters, became prevalent and remained in use until the 1800s. During the 1600s onwards, enemas were primarily designed for self-administration at home, with many of these innovations originating in France, where the practice was widespread.

The simplex clyster syringe. - Wellcome Collection
The “simplex” Clyster syringe. – Wellcome Collection

In the 1800s, there was a surge of new enema designs and innovations. Some enemas included long tube attachments for vaginal use, particularly for contraceptive douching purposes, a practice that gained popularity around 1860. Plunge reservoir enemas relied on pressure from a plunger to force the fluid down into an upright reservoir. Another design, the valve pump enema, featured a two-way valve mechanism. These developments marked a period of significant advancement and diversification in enema syringe designs.

Mechanical reservoir enemas featured an upright reservoir that propelled the solution through a valve upon pressure release. Then, around 1840, bulb enemas emerged, consisting of a rubber bulb connected to tubing at both ends, sometimes with added metal fittings. Remarkably, the bulb enema remained in use well into the twentieth century. While enemas are still occasionally administered, it is now more common for medical professionals to use a funnel and tube or disposable plastic proprietary enema for the procedure.

A more recent development in enema administration is the micro-enema, also known as a rectal tube. This method involves attaching a short length of tubing to a syringe containing the micro-enema medication. The lubricated tubing is then inserted rectally, and the plunger is depressed to deliver the drug. Alternatively, the micro-enema can be placed in a plastic bulb device, lubricated, inserted rectally, and then the bulb is squeezed to expel the medication.

Interestingly, in the 18th century, some individuals who desired the effects of caffeine but disliked the taste of coffee resorted to Coffee clusters.

Enemas were once even used for resuscitating drowned individuals. Tobacco smoke was blown into the rectum of “apparently drowned” people to provide warmth and stimulation. The Royal Humane Society of London, founded in 1774 as the Society for the Recovery of the Apparently Drowned, provided tobacco resuscitation kits, including bellows and a tube, at various points along the Thames. Additionally, fainting women were administered tobacco smoke clysters, which many believe gave rise to the phrase “to blow smoke up her ass.”

Various syringe designs have historically been used to introduce drugs into the rectum, vagina, and urethra. From the 1600s onwards, large multi-purpose silver and pewter syringes served this purpose, and during the 1800s, a wide range of glass and pewter syringes, designed differently for males and females, appeared on the market. They were employed to administer substances like glycerine to clear the rectum.

Design and Components

The traditional Clyster syringe typically consists of the following components:

  • Bulb or Container: This is the main body of the syringe, designed to hold the liquid to be administered.
  • Nozzle: Attached to the bulb, the nozzle is inserted into the rectum to deliver the fluid.
  • Tube: In some designs, a flexible tube connects the bulb to the nozzle, providing ease of use and comfort.
  • Piston or Plunger: In bulb-type syringes, a piston or plunger mechanism helps push the fluid through the nozzle.
  • Graduated Markings: Some modern versions include graduated markings on the container to measure the volume of liquid being administered.
Portable enema self-administration apparatus by Giovanni Alessandro Brambilla (18th century; Medical History Museum, University of Zurich)
Portable enema self-administration apparatus by Giovanni Alessandro Brambilla (18th century; Medical History Museum, University of Zurich). – Wikipedia

Uses and Medical Applications

Throughout history, enemas have been used for a variety of reasons:

  • Constipation Relief: Enemas are effective in softening stool and relieving constipation, as they help stimulate bowel movements.
  • Bowel Preparation: Prior to certain medical procedures, such as colonoscopies or surgeries, enemas are used to cleanse the colon for better visualization.
  • Hydration and Medication: In cases where oral intake is not possible, enemas can be used to hydrate patients and administer medications.
  • Detoxification: Some alternative medicine practices propose enemas as a method to remove toxins from the body, although medical evidence supporting this claim is limited.
Possibly a 19th century Clyster Syringe - McCord Stewart Museum
Possibly a 19th-century Clyster Syringe – McCord Stewart Museum

Medical Considerations and Precautions

While enemas can provide therapeutic benefits, they are not without risks and should be used judiciously. Some important considerations include:

  • Fluid Selection: The type of fluid used in an enema can impact its effectiveness and safety. Water-based solutions are generally safe, but additives like soap, coffee, or herbs should be used with caution and under medical supervision.
  • Hygiene and Sterility: Ensuring proper sterilization and hygiene during the process is crucial to prevent infections and complications.
  • Proper Technique: Incorrect administration of an enema can lead to injury or discomfort, so following proper technique is essential.
  • Individual Suitability: Not everyone may be a suitable candidate for enemas, particularly those with certain medical conditions like inflammatory bowel disease or rectal bleeding.
Enemas from Butler & Crispe 1939 wholesale catalogue
Enemas from Butler & Crispe 1939 wholesale catalogue


The Clyster syringe has a rich history in medical practices spanning several millennia. While its design has evolved over time, its fundamental purpose of administering enemas remains unchanged. Enemas continue to have medical applications, particularly in relieving constipation and preparing for certain procedures. However, it is vital to approach their use with caution, considering individual health circumstances and consulting medical professionals when necessary. The Clyster syringe, with its historical significance and medical importance, serves as a reminder of the long-standing relationship between medical practices and the development of medical instruments.

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