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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