YORKSHIRE PHARMACIST’S BOOK OF REMEDIES AND MEDICAL NOTES (C696), c1830-c1880

This fascinating pharmacist’s book appears to have been written over a period of approximately 50 years in the mid-nineteenth century in three different hands. Unfortunately the authors are unknown, but it provides an intriguing insight into 19th Century medicine and practice. 

The book is in three parts and contains recipes for many different lotions, pills, mixtures, ointments, powders and syrups used to treat a variety of illnesses. The book covers a multitude of everyday ailments, with solutions for aiding indigestion, headaches, spots and toothache, as well as more deliberating ailments such as asthma, [w]hooping cough, jaundice, rheumatism and ringworm.

A recipe for a toothache remedy:

-To cure the tooth ache-
Onion seed, mixed with bees wax, make into a small ball, put the ball when mixed together on a hot iron, to melt the wax and seed, then cover it with a funnel and let the fume go into the tooth and it will effect a cure in two minutes.

One of the conditions that is explored in some depth is Scrofula, an illness which causes inflamed and swollen lymph nodes in the neck and which is caused by the same bacteria that also causes tuberculosis.

The entry begins “Scofula (from Scrofa, a sow) is so called because swine are said to be subject to it – it is also called King’s Evil from Edw[ar]d the Confessor and other succeeding King’s, both of England and France, pretending to cure it by the touch”.

This blog post on the Royal College of Physicians website provides more information about ‘The King’s Evil’ and the practice of the ‘royal touch’. The swellings alone were not fatal and would sometimes disappear on their own, making it seem like the miraculous touch had cured them. 

As the pages go on, the author continues to describe the symptoms and possible treatments for the disorder.

“Treatment: the general idea of scrofula is that it is a disease of debility and therefore the great object is to invigorate the habit by every possible means. The most celebrated and effectious remedies here are strengthening and alternative medicines, as Brandish’s alkaline solution, preparations of Iron, coltsfoot juice, the compound calomel pill, burnt sponge, extract of hemlock and oxygen gas. Warm and cold bathing together with a nourishing diet of animal food, and constant exercise in a dry, warm atmosphere.”

Mr Brandish, the person referred to, is a “surgeon at Alchester” who “used it above 30 years and says that he found it of invaluable service in this disease.”

The author dedicates many pages to Scofula, and records developing treatments by other doctors. For example, the author writes of the emergence of iodine as being effective against “scrofulous complaints” and talks of Dr Coindell, “a respectable physician at Geneva” who “was the first to call the attention of professional men to this substance…”

There is also mention of later developments in iodine use with the entry that writes “Dr Anthony Thompson has succeeded in uniting Iron with iodine and promises to be much more beneficial in scropula than iodine in any other form.”

However, it should only be taken in small doses as “when administered to any great extent, it invariably enfeebles the constitution, and produces fainting, trembling and other unpleasant effects”.  He then describes the best ointment for dressing the ulcers as “red precipitate, and nitrate of mercury.”

Ointment of nitrate mercury is an advised solution to many ailments in the book, worryingly so due to how poisonous mercury is. Mercury was used in medicines but later only in ointments due to the belief that it could only poison you by being ingested. Although it was effective at killing off unwanted or diseased tissue, it was eventually realised that it caused some horrific symptoms. These symptoms depend upon the type, dose, method and duration of exposure but can include muscle weakness, poor coordination, numbness of the hands and feet, skin rashes, anxiety, vomiting, memory problems, loss of speech and hearing as well as loss of sight. The book serves as a reminder of how far medicine has come and what we have learnt about ingredients such as these.

Ointment of Nitrate Mercury No. 89
Take of purified quicksilver an oz nitric acid 11dr prepared lard 60oz olive oil 4oz. First dissolve the mercury in the acid then mix the solution while it is hot with the lard and oil melted together. It may be bought in the shops ready mixed.

The book is packed full of other remedies, including methods for making friar’s balsam, cough and tonic mixtures, strengthening pills and syrups of opium. Opium is noted to aid chronic asthma, irritation from coughs, and to lessen pain in sick children and “nervous women”.

Although the book was used to record developments in treatments and cures, at least one of the scribes also used it for general notes, jotting down miscellaneous recipes for a variety of wines, cleaning fluids, inks, chalk and other non-medical resources – a recipe for beef tea sits casually next to instructions for an eye water bath and Borax. 

These extensive notes are a fascinating glimpse into medicine during the 19th century. If you want to explore the book further, it is available to view at our Wakefield office. You can find the item here on our catalogue.

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