A BOOK WRITTEN BY JANE EASTOE
AND RUTH GOODMAN
AVAILABLE FROM WH SMITH
AND RUTH GOODMAN
AVAILABLE FROM WH SMITH
A Victorian Pharmacy had its charm with all those bottles in the window containing various coloured liquid and jars with potions. Inside the Pharmacists being busy mixing them or mysteriously boiling it over a gas burner in a glass jar. When we look at it now we would be tempted to say: "Ah, the good old days".
However, it is a little surprise that in those days you would be rather killed than cured. From a start the medicine has hardly changed since 300 BC. There was also a lot of ignorance about medicine and poison. Apparently, there was a lot of poison used in medicine.
Cocaine and cannabis were constantly and widely use in potions. Never considered to be highly addictive. The famous laudanum was a tincture of opium and widely used as painkiller and as remedy for cold. The working class looked at it as cheaper than gin and a welcome escape.
If any of these medicines didn't fit the ailments then blood-letting was prescribed. This blood-letting was used as far back as the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Greeks, Mayans and Aztecs. The doctor opened a vein and let a considerable amount of blood from the patient. It was quite a widespread practice right up to the late 19th century. The idea was to let the bad blood out which contains the disease.
A PHARMACY IN THE 14TH CENTURY
Another widely practised 'cure' was to put leeches onto a vein. A leech up to four inches long has three jaws and 100 teeth were used, unbelievable it was painless. To make a leech bite they put a drop of blood or milk onto the spot. When it supposed to stop they put salt there.
The cure with leeches ranged from dysentery to nymphomania. The pharmacist kept them in a jar. Leeches can survive up to a year. The best leech was the one which swims fastest which is a sign that it was the hungriest. Leeches would have treated inflammation effectively but blood-letting was pointless. It would even weaken a patient more.
A further treatment was to give the patient a powerful laxative to expel the poison. Although, it never had any effect but it was used for a number of ailments.
When a patient was suffering from toothache he/she was given a blistering plaster to fix behind their ears. If that didn't help they were sending to their barber to have the tooth pulled out.
Blistering was used for fever, arthritis and cholera. Many believed in it because it made them focus on a new pain and ignore the old one. It was also believed that a body can only deal with one ailment and so the other illness would be forced out. Blistering was done with acid or hot plasters to burn the skin and blister. The blisters were then drained. Some even used hot pokers.
They also used poison such as oxalic acid, nux vomica, mercury, arsenic and ergot. Belladonna was used to dilate pupils for beauty treatment even it caused blindness, in the long run. One of the recipe for a cough mixture contained chloroform and it was for children.
Calomel as a purgative and to treat syphilis. It had a mercury compound which causes ulcers in the mount and loss of teeth. Surprise, surprise, it was also used for babies with teething problems.
AN ITALIAN PHARMACY IN THE 19TH CENTURY
Some common Victorian medicine left the patient debilitated, addicted or dead.
People who wanted to become a physician needed to go through a lengthy apprenticeship or even worse a university education. Physicians only diagnose the illness but did not give any prescription. It was the pharmacist who decides the right medicine. The Victorian Pharmacy was also there for a lot of other things such as warts, bad breath, boldness, foot rot and hysteria. If you want gunpowder you go the pharmacy. Sealing wax, pug bills, 'rose nipple cream' and on top of it all Harrison's cleaning drink for cows were all available -- at the pharmacy.
Further cures were made by the pharmacy and added to a further income. They made cordials even they weren't safe or necessary. A mixture of lobelia, olive oil, oil of wintergreen, sassafras and hemlock was for curing deafness. For muscular aches and pains there was 7oz of dried earthworms, 32fl oz of olive oil and 2 fl oz of wine. It definitely got your stomach going.
Yet, the British public trusted the pharmacist and his knowledge. If the patient got better, the medicine done it; if the patience got worse or worst then they blame the illness. There was a fearful loss of life or destruction of health. The rich could afford a qualified doctor but the rest of the people had no choice but to rely on the pharmacy. Most of them didn't know what they were taking.
One of the biggest-selling products in late-Victorian Britain was Clarke's Blood Mixture. It was suppose to have cured all blood diseases. Incredibly, it was only withdrawn from sales in the Sixties.
Sometimes, they made mistakes and the druggists or grocers mixed-up arsenic with arrowroot, magnesia or chalk-powder. Accidental or indented? Arsenic has no smell or taste.
A good record had Mary Ann Cotton who killed three husbands, a fiance, children and stepchildren with arsenic to get hold of the life insurance policies. Although they were a lot poison used in the potion there weren't many incidents like that.
Pharmacists had to make every tablet, ointment and potion by hand. They did work very long hours in their darkened, shadowy pharmacy. People soon noticed whether they were quacks or good pharmacists.