Wednesday 25 January 2017

Spotlight on the Retreat archives: A Window on the 19th Century Pharmacist

This is the first in a series of blog posts celebrating the Retreat digitisation project as it nears completion. Over the last two and half years, staff at the Borthwick have been working through the Retreat archive, updating the catalogue, preparing the documents for digitisation, carrying out conservation treatments where appropriate and photographing each item page by page. This has been a huge task. Over 600,000 images have been created so far and the focus has been on handling each item with care and capturing a high quality image in the most time efficient and effective way we could. Of course there have been many items that have caught our eye along the way. In this series of blog posts project staff pick out some of the interesting items that they have encountered. First Jane Rowling, one of our digitisation assistants introduces the Papers Relating to Alfred Jones from 1880 (RET 6/19/1/85A). 

 As a Victorian, where could you turn to find information on curing a nosebleed, making medicines for dogs, entertaining your children, restoring your hair, polishing soldiers’ buttons, concocting salad dressings, soothing a black eye, extracting teeth, and building a cheap aquarium? Your first port of call would probably have been your local pharmacist. One volume in the Archives of The Retreat offers a fascinating insight into the world of the Victorian pharmacist, and his customers. This volume, Medical and Domestic Formulae by a Pharmaceutical Chemist, is a notebook handwritten by a Retreat patient, Alfred Jones, and dedicated to the Medical Superintendent Dr Baker.


 Mr Jones clearly felt an affinity with Dr Baker, inscribing the first page of of his book with the words “Experientia Docet” - meaning ‘experience teaches’ - and:

‘Poets are born - not made And so are true Physicians.’ 

 These lines express a sense of a shared calling and a certain kind of equality between patient and doctor. The book also serves to show the pride a Pharmaceutical Chemist might take in his work and status in the late nineteenth century.

 Until 1842, chemists and druggists did not have to have a formal qualification. Anyone with sufficient funds could set up a shop and sell potentially lethal concoctions of drugs. Accidents with mis sold or wrongly made-up medicines gave the profession a bad name, leading to the formation of a group of pharmacists who wanted to protect their trade. Jacob Bell, the son of a Quaker pharmacist, quickly emerged as the spokesman for this group. Their greatest successes were the granting of the Royal Charter of Incorporation to the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain in 1843, and the 1868 Pharmacy Act, which meant that anyone making up medicines had to have taken the Society’s examination, and had to be registered with the Society. For pharmacists like Alfred Jones, registration with the Society was a mark of status as a trusted individual within a local community, and as a privileged member of a wider medical community which would also include the Medical Superintendent of a Mental Hospital like The Retreat. Thus he writes that his book contains:

 ‘Tried and Reliable Remedies & Family Recipes Etc. in Chemistry Pharmacy & Domestic Medicine & Veterinary Practise by a Registered Chemist by Examinations (classical & technical) of the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain’ 

 Alfred Jones’ notebook gives us an overview of the kinds of products people required from a pharmacist in the later nineteenth century, and how dangerous some of them might have been! A ‘Carmmative for Infants’ included a large dose of laudanum, while a ‘Mixture for Excited Brain’ (recommended for children as well as adults) contained bromide and chloral hydrate, a sedative. Just as unappealing is an ‘Indigestion Mixture’ containing dilute nitro hydrochloric acid - a substance which can be highly corrosive if not sufficiently diluted.

Another page recommends “Chloroform just short of anasthesia [sic] is best treatment of Hydrophobia” in cases of diseases such as rabies. This would be another risky procedure, but probably safer than the alternative, which was to perform a tracheotomy. The Victorian pharmacist walked a fine line indeed!

Some of the less harmful recipes in the book give us an insight into the realities of life beyond the pharmacist’s shop, for example:

 ‘The Herb called Solomon’s Seal is a reputed cure for Black Eye Geber saith: “It removeth any black or blew spots which occurreth to any woman on falling on her hastie husband’s fists.”

 In the nineteenth century, the local pharmacist would also provide cures and tonics for animals, reflecting a world in which working animals were a much greater part of the general public’s everyday lives than they are today. Alfred Jones offers recipes for a ‘Cleansing Drink for Newly Calved Cow,’ consisting of juniper berries, sulphur, aniseed, ginger, cumin seeds, Glaubers salt (sodium sulphate - used as a laxative in crystal form), and Epsom salts. He notes that, ‘some add 1/2 pt Linseed Oil. A different page gives ‘Alterative and Restorative Powder for Horses’ and ‘Cough Balls for Horses,’ reminding us of the ubiquity of the horse for transport at this time.

The recipes also show a lighter side of life, however. For example, this idea for a children’s entertainment:

‘Magic Designs on a White Sheet Stretch a sheet & draw a design such as the Prince Wales’s Feathers &c with a piece of Chalk & dust thereon lightly a penny packet of Aniline dye Red, Blue, or Any Colour. This is invisible at a distance but on spraying Methylated Spirit onto the sheet with a spray apparatus - it is instantly developed to the amusement of the youngsters.’

The pharmacist also held a wealth of knowledge about food and drink, for which ingredients could be supplied. Alfred Jones offered recipes for ‘Sea Side Sauce’, ‘American Cock Tail Bitters’, Doncaster Butter Scotch, Ginger Wine, ‘Currie Powder’ and Salad Dressing, as well as various jams and marmalades. In this book, some of these recipes sit rather incongruously beside much less appetising concoctions, for example ‘Currie Powder’ (nutmeg, turmeric, “cummin seed,” cayenne, coriander, black pepper, ginger and mustard) is followed by ‘Cement for Glass, China &c’ and ‘Insoluble Liquid Glue.”

This volume, handwritten by a Retreat patient, is just one of the thousands of documents in the hospital’s archive which can tell us about life outside the walls of the Retreat, as well as within. While there are some unusual additions (a poem entitled ‘Lines addressed to a Kitten’ tucked into a page describing furniture polish and cold cream, for example), this book is a fascinating insight into the world of the Victorian pharmacist, and just one of the documents in the Retreat’s archives which brings a lost world to life.

More information about the Wellcome Library funded project to digitise the Retreat archive can be found on the project pages of our website. Digital surrogates from the Retreat archive project are available via the Wellcome Library.

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