I am looking specifically for how to use the first definition given here:

to cause to enter drop by drop (instill medication into the infected eye)

but I imagine usage rules would apply equally to the the sense of instilling a sense of something in someone.

I can't work out if "patients were instilled with medication" would be incorrect, or if it is just an alternative construction of "medication was instilled into patients".

My Google search results are dominated by usage pertaining to instilling a sense of something in someone or variants of "All patients instilled a tear substitute in 1 eye", which doesn't in itself suggest anything about whether the form in question is incorrect.

So can someone be instilled with medication, or is medication always instilled by or into someone?

  • 1
    That is the weirdest sounding thing. Do docs really say that nowadays?
    – Mitch
    Commented Jan 18, 2014 at 17:39
  • You mean the construction I am asking about? It would seem some do, but whether or not they should is what I want to know!
    – nxx
    Commented Jan 18, 2014 at 17:47
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    I wouldn't use the passive with subjects other than the eye / blood / fluids when talking about the physical process, though I've seen human and even group subjects ('...group of rats was instilled with...') used. With the metaphorical sense, eg 'Rich Brewer was instilled with a belief in service and devotion to country and community', human subjects are common. These things are not 'correct / incorrect' but 'commonly-used / strange-sounding'. Commented Jan 18, 2014 at 17:48
  • Indeed. And if its use is common enough in a particular context then I guess it's not incorrect. But how about when you take the literal definition - does it work within the sentence in question? I mean, when I try to insert the definition into the sentence I get something like "patients were caused to have medication entered drop-by-drop into them" as opposed to "the medication was caused to be entered drop-by-drop into the patients"? Is the "have entered" in the former not implied enough to make this usage "technically" correct? (I hope that made sense...).
    – nxx
    Commented Jan 18, 2014 at 17:59
  • 1
    This is a very old use of instill. It is not current in that sense in North America.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jan 18, 2014 at 18:04

2 Answers 2



A procedure in which a fluid is slowly introduced into a cavity or passage of the body and allowed to remain for a specific length of time before being drained or withdrawn.

Mosby's Medical Dictionary, 8th edition. © 2009, Elsevier.

Bladder instillation is a therapy for urinary bladder cancer. The chemotherapeutic solution is instilled into the bladder throug a catheter.

Ear instillation is the instillation of a medicated solution into the external auditory canal of the ear.

Eye instillation is the dispensation of a steril ophthalmic medication into a patient's eye.

So, technically speaking, fluids are instilled (poured drop by drop) into body parts.

I did a Google search for "patients were instilled" and got some results, but interestingly many or most of them were medical papers written by researchers from non-English-speaking countries. I randomly checked out ten papers and their authors were from Brasil, Italy, Korea, Netherlands, Turkey, Japan, Japan again and India; two papers were from American authors.

Out of the medical field, "values were instilled" gets 849000 results in a Google search but "boys were instilled" gets only very few.

Judging by this results, solutions and values are often instilled, but patients and boys are not.

Though it's extremely rare to write that "whole patients" or people in general are instilled, experimental animals (or at least rats) are treated differently, because "rats were instilled" is a common phrase that got 765000 results in a Google search.

  • Thanks, that is a great answer. If you see FumbleFingers' answer and the comments that followed, you'll see that "[x] were instilled with [saline]" is relatively common when it pertains to experimental animals as well as body parts. Feel free to look into that and incorporate something into your answer and I think we'd have a pretty complete answer.
    – nxx
    Commented Feb 6, 2014 at 21:38
  • On a side note, I'd expect "boys were instilled" would get few hits, as boys are not as common a study group as the wider categories of patients, children, etc.
    – nxx
    Commented Feb 6, 2014 at 21:40
  • @nxx Your are right. I chose "boys" to avoid medical results.
    – Albertus
    Commented Feb 6, 2014 at 22:52
  • Two medium-sized boys were instilled into the patient's infected aural canal…? Good grief! Commented Feb 7, 2014 at 1:09

I don't have any problem with the dictionary's example usage of instill, but I can't see why that should lead OP to ask whether we can reasonably say "patients were instilled with medication".

The short answer is we never say that. It's quite reasonable to speak of wounds (or other [infected body parts]) being thus treated (see these written instances of instilled with saline), but not the whole patient.

If we consider a closely-related usage (injected) it's probably fair to say the reason it's okay to say the patient was injected with [some medication] is because often the specific site of the injection doesn't matter much (the medication will be carried wherever it's needed, by the bloodstream). With topical medication (I use the term loosely), the medication is applied directly to the tissue it's supposed to be treating (a body part, not the whole body).

  • If I were writing the sentence myself I would certainly adhere to the dictionary construction. But I have seen it used the other way, which is why I ask; this also negates your statement that "we never say that". I am interested in whether it's considered acceptable, but also whether it's even semantically meaningful, to say it. [edited - I get it now].
    – nxx
    Commented Jan 18, 2014 at 18:30
  • Actually, most of the examples in the link are precisely the construction I am questioning: "rats instilled with saline".
    – nxx
    Commented Jan 18, 2014 at 18:32
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    @nxx: I think "most" might be a bit of an overstatement, but I take your point. I think it's probably because in context, the "medical trials" people don't really think of the rat as a whole organism - it's just a load of irrelevant biomass that happens to be in the same place as the specific wound/infection site they're testing treatments on. You'll find no written instances for instilled with medication (but 133 for injected with.... And looking at some of 1650 hits for he was instilled with, they all seem to be for the figurative "imbued with, possessed of" sense. Commented Jan 18, 2014 at 18:52
  • Well, it was a rough count! That is a very good point and argues for acceptability in experimental animals but not humans; such a usage difference is interesting in itself.
    – nxx
    Commented Jan 18, 2014 at 19:03

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