Tag Archives: opium

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: 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.