As there was no, or very little, control of substances in the early 20th century, some control of substances being used by athletes had to be restricted or stopped completely. For example, chemicals like strychnine (a stimulant that is fatal in high doses).
The New York State Athletic Commission or NYSAC, founded in 1920—also known as the New York Athletic Commission—is a division of the New York State Department, which regulates all contests and exhibitions of unarmed combat within the state of New York, including licensing and supervision of promoters, boxers, professional wrestlers, seconds, ring officials, managers, and matchmakers.
The National Boxing Association (NBA) was formed in 1921 by a number of U.S. states as competition to the NYSAC. Sometimes both recognized different boxers as World Champion (typically 1927-40). In 1962, the NBA renamed itself the World Boxing Association (WBA) and the following year the NYSAC supported the formation of the World Boxing Council (WBC).
In 1928, the IAAF (athletics) became the first International Sport Federation (IF) to ban doping (use of stimulating substances). Many other IFs followed suit, but restrictions remained ineffective, and the first banned substance list was not published until 1966-67, as no tests were performed until 1968 at the Olympic Games in Mexico.
Some Old School Tools
It would have been common for seconds to carry a number of small bottles to an event and to the corner for between round maintenance. In those bottles, seconds may have carried a combination of stimulants and pain killers (as mentioned above), unusual methods of plugging wounds, and embalming preservatives (which I’ll explain a little later) that acted as blood coagulants, and homemade wound dressings. Let’s take a look at some of the other substances used by cornermen in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Frank ‘The Doc’ Bagley (second/cutman 1850s) used an unorthodox method of plugging wounds. Doc would carry chewing tobacco, which he chewed into a pulp. When a fighter got cut, he then placed this into the open wound as a plug to help stem the flow of blood, then topped it off by placing an ice cold silver dollar on top as a constrictor.
Negatan, or other Embalming Fluids, have been used in boxing. In fact, when Rocky Marciano’s nose split in two while fighting ‘Jersey’ Joe Walcott, cutman Freddie Brown used Negatan. Negatan contains formaldehyde, which turns skin to leather in a matter of seconds and is typically used as an embalming fluid or preservative in funeral homes by undertakers. It is a form of chemical cauterization (which I’ll explain later) and may have caused extensive tissue damage and permanently weakened scar tissue.
It was invented in the late 1840s by Leon Monsel (March 13, 1816 – April 15, 1878), a French military pharmacist. This widely outlawed haemostatic agent quickly stops the blood flow by chemically cauterizing the tissue surrounding the cut, while generating severe scar tissue and often leaving a dark rim around the wound. It was rumoured to be on Sonny Liston’s gloves when he boxed Ali in 1965, which nearly cost Ali the fight because of poor vision.
Cauterization is the burning of part of a body to cause blood coagulation, thus controlling bleeding. The practice was used in ancient times and in the teachings of Hippocrates as early as 460 – 370 BC.
We are going to concern ourselves with just two types of cautery;
Actual Cauterisation: The use of a heated metal rod placed directly over an open wound to promote blood coagulation. The practice was thought to reduce the risk of infection, but because of the extensive damage caused by burning it did quite the opposite and infection was common.
Chemical Cauterisation: This is the use of a chemical substance to burn or stem the flow of blood by coagulation. However, too often the chemicals would seep into healthy tissue, causing damage or permanent scarring. Although the practice of actual cauterisation is not used today, other forms are still in use. For example, chemical cauterisation, the use of silver nitrate (long matchstick dipped into water) for nose bleeds. This would typically have been part of a cutman’s kit in Whitey Brimstein’s time in the 1920s. You can see an example of its modern day use here.
Other forms of Chemical Cautery: Trichloroacetic acid and cantharidin were used for cosmetic surgery and treating warts or minor skin lesions.
Homemade remedies like vinegar were used by seconds in the 19th century and to some degree are still used today as a form of chemical cauterization to stop nose bleeds. A small amount of vinegar is placed on the end of a cloth, or swab, and placed inside the nostrils to stem the flow of blood.
Ice was used in the treatment of patients by Hippocrates, and was either consumed or applied to an injured area as a way to control swelling or to treat injuries. Ice works as a vasoconstrictor, narrowing the vein in the primary stages of haemostasis and helping to promote blood clotting.
Wound dressings and Poultices
The likes of lint, animal grease, and honey were used as topical treatments for wounds throughout the ages. The lint provided a fibrous base that promoted wound site closure, the animal grease provided a barrier to environmental pathogens, and the honey served as an antibiotic agent.
It wasn’t uncommon for seconds to make their own homemade poultices. These were used on cloth made of brine (brine poultice) and placed on open wounds and injuries.
Natural Medicines used for Wounds
The medical practitioner, or the healer, in many instances may have used a combination of tools to aid homeostasis and numb pain. Below I list but a few of those methods:
Uses of Juniper
It is reported that Juniper was used to help stop minor bleeding in humans. With their warming, stimulating, and disinfectant properties, juniper berries have many medicinal uses. Juniper berries have an antiseptic effect and were used in cases of chronic and repeated urinary tract infections.
Mustard seeds were used as a decongestant, and they may have been used as a vasodilator. Their properties and uses are as an antibacterial, antifungal, and to promote circulation.
Poppy seeds (opium) were crushed and used as analgesics/painkillers and muscle relaxants.
Sea Weed/Qwick Aid
This is a seaweed based (alginate) dressing that has a high absorption rate and promotes healing. These dressings have been used for a millennium or more. Alginate dressing such as Qwick Aid are revised versions of their earlier ancestry and are somewhat more efficient. The method of minimizing bacterial contamination and promoting the formation of the granulation tissue is basically the same. Alginate dressings may be used for moderate to heavy exudation of wounds.
Among the more common coagulants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were bismuth subgallate, tannic acid, and tincture of myrrh. Whitey Bimstein’s (one of the Godfathers and Hall of Famers in Boxing) irreverent comment on myrrh: “The three wise men?
‘’The Three Wise Men’’
Tincture of Myrrh: Myrrh is currently used in some liniments and healing salves that may be applied to abrasions and other minor skin ailments.
Bismuth Subgallate: Bismuth Subgallate are used as mild antiseptics and constrict blood vessels (vaso-constrictors). Other uses, or treatments, are for haemorrhoids.
Tannic Acid: Tannic acid is found in the nutgalls formed by insects on the twigs of certain oak trees (Quercus infectoria and other Quercus species). Tannic acid is directly applied to the affected area to stop bleeding and is used for cold sores, fever blisters, diaper rash, prickly heat, poison ivy, ingrown toenails, sore throat, sore tonsils, spongy or receding gums, and skin rashes.
Carpenters’ and Super Glue have been used throughout the years in boxing to seal or form a hard barrier over wounds and have been part of a cutman’s kit for decades. However, before you go running out the door to buy some, here are two good reasons not to:
- The curing process creates an exothermic reaction (heat) which can cause further tissue damage.
- The process releases cyanoacetate and formaldehyde – both irritants to the eyes, nose, throat and lungs.
Stay tuned for Part 4 of this series on the history of cutmen. You can find parts 1 and 2 below.