When Queen Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837, medicine was a world away from what it is today. From morphine for a child’s cough to oil of earthworm for bruises, cures that doctors and pharmacists were providing to make people better are quite surprising to us today. Throughout the Victorian era, pharmacists were experimenting; it was a period during which the medical profession made great advancements. Even though, by today’s standards, some of the cures and medicines available from the Victorian doctor or over the counter verge on the unthinkable, some of the progress we have made in modern medicine can be – at least in part – attributed to some of the discoveries made by the Victorians.
More so than any doctors in early Victorian England, the pharmacy was what brought healthcare to the general population for the very first time. This was a significant change for society and allowed the average person to access cures and remedies for illness. The appearance of the pharmacy on the high street was revolutionary for the early Victorians.
Unlike the 21st century pharmacies we visit today, which are full of pre-packaged pills, sachets, syrups and sprays to cure thousands of everyday illnesses, a visit to a Victorian pharmacy would have been a much more individually tailored affair. The walls, likely filled with row upon row of wooden shelving, would house a whole multitude of bottles and boxes each containing liquids and powders of all kinds of colours, all carefully labelled with their Latin names. Herbs, plants and even some animals too would have been stored aplenty behind the counter, perhaps in lots of tiny drawers all carefully labelled, ready for the pharmacist or his apprentice to mix up. Indeed, particularly in early Victorian times, much mixing and weighing out of different ingredients would have gone on, all using a set of scales and weights to measure exactly the amount necessary to concoct the desired medicine. There was a lot of hands-on work in the pharmacy and, as such, essential items behind the counter would have included a set of balance scales, likely heavy and made of cast iron; a set of weights, either brass bells or discs; pill rolling devices; a pestle and mortar; a small measuring vase; a hammer and a huge, heavy book full of all the remedies and potions of the time.
How did they cure people?
In early Victorian times, people’s knowledge was growing and ideas were changing. Scientists, doctors and pharmacists were all making discoveries, which would help to change the world of medicine. However, during Queen Victoria’s first years on the throne, a lot of medicine was still based on old beliefs rather than emerging scientific knowledge. Herbalists – experts in plants – would have been extremely important when mixing medicines and could inform doctors and pharmacists of what the various herbs and plants could help with. They would also have known where such plants could be sourced. One huge benefit to using natural based remedies was that the plants with which they were made were free!
Mixing the different ingredients and adding just the right amount of them in order to produce the intended medicine was a highly skilled task and should not really have been performed by just anyone. Indeed, if the pharmacist’s apprentice were to make a mistake in his mixing, it could be very dangerous. However, in early Victorian times, anyone was allowed to set up a pharmacy and as such pharmacists were not necessarily trained meaning that there was definite potential for things to go wrong and some people died as a result of incorrect dosages and inexact measurements.
Examples of early Victorian medicine
Some of the things that the Victorians believed to be true about the body and illness have been scientifically disproved today. Below are some examples of common cures used by early Victorian pharmacists.
Early Victorians believed that, when it was unwell, the body was storing too much of certain ‘humours’. One of the humours was blood. As the Victorians understood it, if blood came out of the body it was because the body had too much blood and needed to re-balance itself. Having too much blood was actually thought to cause a lot of illnesses and because of this belief they would use leeches to suck the blood out of the body.
Plantain is a very common herb which was used to help hay fever and allergies. It would have been sourced locally by a herbalist and it helped sooth irritations in the lungs and so was used to cure common coughs. It could even be drunk in tea.
Throughout the 1800s, plasters were used to draw what the Victorians thought to be badness out of the body. On top of a thin cut out of leather, a blend of wax and ingredients such as lead, opium or frankincense, which was known for being good at clearing things from the chest, would be spread and let to cool. These plaster shapes would then be sold for people to place on different parts of their body – the forehead, chest, behind the ears, for example – and they would draw out the excessive humours thought to be causing pain or illness. They were not plasters as we know them today – in fact, they could be quite large indeed! A plaster for the chest could be 20cm in diameter! If a patient had a cough, they might have resorted to putting on a plaster, which they would warm up using warm water thus making it stick to the skin. Thereafter, the patient would have wanted the plaster to draw out as much of the so-thought excessive humour as it could and so would have gone as long as they could bear with the half melted wax on their skin without washing – likely, two or three days!
The Everlasting Pill
Incredible as it might seem today, this was a popular way to clear the body. Because of popular belief that a person could feel ill and out of sorts because of an imbalance within the body, people thought that getting rid of all the badness inside of you would help cure you. With the aim of purging the body of unwanted humours and ills, the Everlasting Pill was invented. The pill itself was very small and made of a metal now known to be toxic called antimony. Swallowing this would induce severe vomiting and diarrhoea, thus giving the body what they thought to be a healthy cleanse. Worse still though, the faeces would be sifted through to retrieve the pill, which was marketed to be re-usable. After a wash, it would be put back on the shelf ready for the next person to gulp down when they wished! Indeed, sometimes it passed through many people in the family and could have been passed down the generations!
Between 1837 and 1901, medical professionals did much to further their knowledge and give people better cures and information. One significant discovery was born through the cholera outbreak in 1854 in London when it was demonstrated by a doctor named John Snow that disease was not actually spread by miasmas. The general thinking at the time was that miasmas, or poisonous vapours in the air, caused the spread of disease; however, Dr John Snow showed people that the cholera was in fact spreading through the contaminated water from a pump in Soho. This major breakthrough led to the government working hard to set up separate water systems for sewage and drinking water, provide clean water for public consumption and create rubbish removal systems for increased hygiene in urban areas.
Scientific developments throughout the 1800s all helped contribute towards a more knowledgeable, advanced society and people’s understanding of health and medicine improved greatly. While pharmacists in Britain were using the labs behind their shops to experiment and bring about new treatments, other countries were taking great leaps forward. In France, it was Louis Pasteur who took the first steps towards understanding germs, for example, and he remains world famous for his discoveries today as these paved the way for modern day understanding of biology.
Crucial advances in medicine such as the invention of anaesthesia in 1846 and the founding of antiseptic surgery lead to important advances in medicine in Victorian times and by the end of the century both doctors and pharmacists were much better placed to treat people. It can certainly be said that although we have made huge advances since 1901, the medical professionals and scientists of the 19th century most definitely helped us on our journey to the wonderful medical knowledge that we possess today.
Credit for feature image: Wellcome Images, Wellcome Library, London. Coloured etching by H. Heath, 1825. With thanks.