Tag Archives: addictive

The Addictive History of Medicine: Explorer Beware: Hazardous chemicals in Captain Scott’s Antarctic Medicine Chest

Many museums and organisations have been celebrating the centenary of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition to the South Pole. But have you ever wondered what kind of medicine Scott and his party brought with them to the ends of the earth? Here at the Science Museum we know because we have one Scott’s original aluminium medicine chests. The chest, dated to 1910, was carried by Scott and his party when they set out for the pole in November 1911. This chest was originally kept at the Lower Glacier Depot on the way to the Pole, however it was picked up when Scott’s second in command Lieutenant Edward Evans began his return journey to the Cape. It was only recovered in 1912 when a search party set out to find Scott and his comrades, whose bodies were discovered 11 miles out from the One Ton Depot.

Aluminium medicine chest brought by Captain Scott to the Lower Glacier Depot c. 1910 (Credit: Science Museum).

This medicine chest can tell us about the kind of drugs indispensible to Scott and his comrades. Plastic bottles containing Paregoric Elixir (Camphorated Tincture of Opium) and Aromatic Powder tablets (chalk and opium) are to be found within this chest. Opium was a useful sedative and pain reliever. Additional phials of hypodermic tablets of cocaine and morphine would have been administered by injection in cases of extreme trauma.

Hazardous Substances from the medicine chest made by Burroughs Wellcome and Co. c. 1910 (Credit: Science Museum)

The chest contains other hazardous chemicals such as strychnine, belladonna, arsenic, and mercury – medicines that would have been used as irritants to bring on a sweat; a common nineteenth century remedy for fever.


Scott and his party at the South Pole, c.1912 (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Although it is worth considering how modern medicines may have aided early explorers, we know that even the most efficacious of drugs could not have helped Scott or his team survive the Antarctic storms.

Written by Kristin Hussey and Luke Pomeroy, Collections Information Officers

The addictive history of medicine: the curious case of the 7 percent solution

“Which is it to-day,” I asked, “morphine or cocaine?”
He raised his eyes languidly from the old black-letter volume which he had opened.
“It is cocaine,” he said, “a seven-per-cent solution. Would you care to try it?”

The Sign of Four, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, (1890)

Leatherette case for a cocaine syringe, not unlike the one described by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Credit: Science Museum).

Sherlock Holmes is undoubtedly literature’s most famous cocaine user. In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, Holmes uses cocaine in order to stimulate his brain when he wasn’t applying it to a case. The detective famously injected a ‘seven percent solution’ which was most often administered by doctors; not surprising considering Conan Doyle was a doctor himself. In the mid-1880s when the author was publishing such stories as A Scandal in Bohemia (1886), cocaine was believed to be a new wonder drug, able to kill pain and improve mental function.

An advertisement expounds the virtues of cocaine for treating teething children. (Credit: University at Buffalo)

In fact, Sherlock Holmes certainly would not have been alone amongst his contemporaries for his use of cocaine. Since 1856 when cocaine had been isolated from the coca plant, the drug was widely used for its pain-killing properties. The drug found its way into such medicines as children’s tooth-ache remedies and was even prescribed to treat morning sickness.

Although his habit was always condemned by Watson, in later stories Holmes himself referred to his hypodermic syringe as an ‘instrument of evil’. Similarly, the recreational use of cocaine fell off sharply at the end of the 19th century as its dangers became apparent. The drug was eventually banned in the UK in 1920.

Bottle of Tabloid brand 'Voice' tablets containing cocaine for improving speaking and singing abilities, c. 1890-1910 (Credit: Science Museum).

In the modern BBC adaptation of Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch, there is no mention of the ‘morocco case’ of Conan Doyle’s originals. However, in ‘A Study in Pink’, 221B Baker Street is subjected to a drug raid, and references are later made to Sherlock experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Could this be a nod to the sleuth’s original cocaine habit?



This article was written by Kristin Hussey and Luke Pomeroy, Collections Information Officers

The addictive history of medicine: Opium, the poor child’s nurse

The Ebers papyrus tells us the Ancient Egyptians had an interesting way to deal with noisy crying babies: just give them a draft of opium. This practice was still very much use in the Victorian era, when it gained notoriety for the dangers the use of children’s opiates posed to general health.

Opium - The Poor Child's Nurse

"The Poor Child's Nurse" from an 1849 issue of British humour magazine Punch. Source: HarpWeek.

We know in this era opium was readily used as a cure for a bad cough, or aches and pains, but it is less well known that opium was also given to children, and even babies. Restless or teething babies and small infants would be given concoctions such as Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, which contained morphine (an opium derivative). There were at least ten brands of mixtures aimed at children and infants including Atkinson’s Royal Infants’ Preservative, and Street’s Infants Quietness. The most famous preparation of children’s opiates was Godfrey’s Cordial, which was a mixture of opium, treacle, water and spices.

Advertisment for Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup

A glamourised and seemingly tranquil card advertisement for Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup. Source: University of Buffalo.

Medical Officers during this period were convinced that opium was a major cause of infantile death, with the use of opium becoming widespread amongst working class families. Opium was often described as the ‘Poor Child’s Nurse’, due to its ability to stop hungry babies from crying. Attitudes towards the administering of opium to children were often casual, with preparations such as laudanum and paregoric stating recommended doses for children and infants on the labels of bottles.

Bottle of Stickney and Poor's Paregoric with dosages for children

The label on the back of this bottle of Stickney and Poor's Paregoric states dosages for infants as young as five days old. Source: University of Buffalo.

One Manchester druggist even admitted to selling between five and six gallons of “quietness” every week. That’s around 24 pints! Opium caused infant mortality through starvation rather than overdose; as one doctor stated that infants ‘kept in a state of continued narcotism will be thereby disinclined for food, and be but imperfectly nourished”. The scale of infant mortality at the time was not fully known, as coroners often recorded the cause as ‘starvation’. Lozenges or pastilles containing opium were often displayed within pharmacy shop cabinets in rows, very much like a candy shop.

Jar for 'Licorice & Chlorodyne' Pastilles

Rows of jars for pastilles with various ingredients, including one for 'Liquorice & Chlorodyne', on display in the Gibson & Son Pharmacy at the Science Museum, Lower Wellcome Gallery. Source: Science Museum.

 This article was written by Kristin Hussey and Luke Pomeroy, Collections Information Officers.

C. OPII: Drugs in the 19th century pharmacy

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.

Late-nineteenth century glass shop rounds in Gibson and Son's Pharmacy. (Credit: Science Museum, London)

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

Late 19th or early 20th century green glass ribbed poison bottle for morphine hydrochloride. (Credit: Science Museum, London)

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.

The Addictive History of Medicine: An Introduction

If you’ve ever been in hospital, there’s a good chance your doctor gave you morphine to help with the pain when recovering from a procedure. If you have ever had a bad cough, you might have been given a cough syrup with codeine in it. We don’t usually think of addictive substances as playing an important role in medicine, but the Science Museum’s pharmaceutical collection shows that these drugs have been widely used by doctors since ancient times. Opium in various forms has been used since the Greeks, although it rose to notoriety with the Victorians. From beautiful glassware, to the patent medicines which ushured in a new age of advertising, addicive drugs can be found throughout medical history.

An advertisement from 1935 extols the virtues of Chlorodyne, a medicine containing chloroform and morphine. (Credit: The Virtual Dime Museum)

In this blog series, we will be delving into the ‘Addictive History of Medicine’. That is, how addictive drugs played an important role in the evolution of medical practice. We will look at a range of topics from ancient drug preparations to the use of opiates for children, how to spot opium in 19th century pharmacy bottles and even consider Sherlock Holmes and his cocaine habit using the lens of our collections.

Late Victorian hypodermic syringe case for administering cocaine. (Credit: The Science Museum)

As Collections Information Officers, we spend much of our time working with the medical collections here at the Science Museum. We are currently carrying out a documentation project on the pharmaceutical collections we have in our small objects storage, and we became interested by the variety of addictive drugs from different time periods. We hope you are as fascinated as we are by these objects and their addictive history.

Rows of ceramic pharmacy jars in the Science Museum's stores. (Credit: The Science Museum)

This article was written by Kristin Hussey and Luke Pomeroy, Collections Information Officers.