If you have ever seen the Gibson & Son Pharmacy display at the Science Museum, then you know it’s not always easy to tell what is inside the numerous and bewilderingly labelled shop rounds. Pharmacists really had to know their abbreviated Latin as many of the medications sold in in the nineteenth century contained opium.
But how can you spot a bottle which contains opium? There are many ways to say opium on shop rounds. Bottles like we find in Gibson’s might say OPII., OPIO., RHOEA. PAPAVER. or even just the letter O!
Early 19th century stoneware drug jar for the storage of opium preparations. (Credit: Science Museum, London)
If you think that’s confusing, you aren’t the only one. It was a common occurence in the nineteenth century for pharmacists to confuse medicines, sometimes with fatal results. For example, a pharmacist in 1858 mistook PULV OPII TURC OPT (Turkish Opium) for Turkish Rhubarb (RHEI TURC) causing a patient to die of an overdose, and was faced trial for manslaughter. Opium sales weren’t tightly controlled either. Until 1868, anyone could buy or sell opium regardless of whether they were a qualified chemist or not
Opium was not the only dangerous drug in the pharmacy. Most glass bottles containing potentially poisonous drugs were made to look and feel different as a warning to potential users. We call these poison bottles, and they are usually made of ribbed, coloured glass. There are many other substances we now consider dangerous lurking in old medicine bottles, like mercury or arsenic, that we wouldn’t dream of using today.
This article was written by Kristin Hussey and Luke Pomeroy, Collections Information Officers.