Vale the aromatic pharmacy of old

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old pharmacy mixtures

The aromatic pharmacy of old is gone and it’s been replaced by an army of bland, potent and expensive medications with sterile names and lurid plastic packaging. In this third and final article of his historical pharmacy series, Robert Gosstray regrets the passing of this gentler, humane and infinitely more holistic pharmaceutical era.

The holistic nature of all the compounds I mixed didn’t occur to me at the time, but I now think this was their main benefit. By using complete plant extracts instead of the isolated active principles (which became a tidal wave of isolation and specialisation over the years), much was achieved with something lost when only the active ingredient was used. For example, using Morphine instead of the Opium extracts increased addiction rates and side-effects.

This reductionism has carried through to modern drug practice, which I feel is on the wrong track.

These great compounded mixtures all had an equivalence in tablet form, which was more convenient but lost the holistic appeal of the liquid form. APC mixture was a wonderful, finely balanced treatment for all kinds of pain, consisting of Aspirin, Phenacetin and Caffeine, flavoured with Orange Syrup and Chloroform water with the aspirin and phenacetin being suspended ( they were insoluble in most solvents) by a gum called Tragacanth. It was a smooth and well-tolerated preparation suitable for all ages, and had a rapid onset of action.

The APC tablets were nowhere near as effective but they were convenient. This formula was frowned upon, with the phenacetin being replaced by Paracetamol, a much less effective pain-killer. The whole range of APC preparations, especially the commercially produced ones – Aspro, Bex, Vincents (powders and tablets) and others were gulped down by anxious and desperate housewives all over the world, with some reports of kidney damage. This was enough for another ban, which induced them to switch to Paracetamol (liver damage), ibuprofen (cardiovascular and gastric problems), Valium (even more addictive) and codeine (addictive and constipating).

Trend is to ban cheap older drugs and replace with expensive drugs

It is probably just coincidence (haw!) but it seems that the prevailing trend is to ban cheap and effective older drugs and replace them with expensive and more damaging drugs that are heavily promoted to doctors by the drug companies. This applies to amphetamines, opiates, cannabis and other groups which have all been banned.

Our moral guardians ban the wrong things

Our enlightened moral guardians also delight in banning books, plays, art and films. This censorious and over-protective attitude sits strangely with the reluctance to tackle the damage caused by alcohol, pornography, poor quality and violent TV shows, drugs in sports, family violence, religious bigots, racism and poverty.

This reluctance is not all that strange since it is far easier to attack and ban the so-called vices of the underprivileged — street drugs, grog, gambling, tobacco and sex. It is much harder to attack anyone or any group who can afford teams of lawyers. We often hear of police “swooping” on marijuana crops, crystal meth labs, bikie gangs, squatters, environmental activists and street demonstrators. They never “swoop” on crooked developers and the politicians in their pockets, or greedy and reckless bankers, or monolithic retail monopolies, or the oil and mining industries with their shameful history of exploitation and environmental damage.

If the medical, legal and political establishments were fair-dinkum, they would ban or clamp down on advertising.

Everyone knows that we (and particularly the younger generations) are being damaged by junk food, alcohol, sugary drinks, and a polluted and degraded environment. The level of advertising has reached enormous and intrusive levels, and this includes the simplistic and somewhat obscene ads for mining companies, whereby the miners are depicted as benevolent employers of indigenous people, in complete harmony with the environment and only doing this noble and selfless job for the benefit of all Australians.

The ‘trickle-down’ effect is a fiction.

These mining magnates pay little or no tax as they rapaciously gouge out as much as they can before it all runs out. A disturbing fact now emerging about the over-fed, underactive lifestyles of modern children in Western societies is that, for the first time, the coming generation will have a shorter life-span than the previous one. This should set off alarm bells, but the economic and environmental dead-end we have created, will mean the same destructive patterns will continue.

I enjoyed the complexities of old style compounding pharmacy,

I took great pride in producing safe, cheap and effective preparations from a wide range of materials, all done to time-tested formulae and catering to a wide range of people.

The people were the best part— unpretentious, obliging and of infinite character. One lady always asked us for “Angel-Jesus” balm, instead of “Analgesic Balm”, one bloke would always rush back in saying “ I forgot to get my memory pills and could I have some Black-jack too?” (an opium-containing cough mixture).

Another rather stupid customer would buy things and then always say,“I’m my father’s son – do I get a discount?” One pimply-faced kid would always come in on Saturday mornings with a prescription for Sulphurated Potash Lotion. I hated making this — you had to crush up the potash with a mortar and pestle, liberating great clouds of “rotten-egg” gas and then take a few hours to dissolve it. No sweet aromatic smells on those days (and he stayed spotty anyway).

A notorious whinger brought in a prescription one day for “Pulv ABT”. I scratched my head as I had never heard of this antacid preparation and it was in no reference book that I knew of. Reluctantly (taking some pride in always accurately interpreting any written prescription), I rang the doctor who just snorted –“It is Pulv Any Bloody Thing- he is a raging hypochondriac”. I mixed up some bicarb, sugar and starch.

The decline in this form of compounding and dispensing was mainly caused by economic factors.

Medically, I would still have great faith in the time-tested formulae we used, but of course, there was no money in it for the big drug companies and therefore no promotion. Indeed their propaganda over the years has denigrated the old ways and promoted high-tech and expensive cure-alls for an increasingly self-obsessed and worried populace.

I regret the passing of these dispensing practices and the loss of the associated skills and knowledge, but realise it was of another much slower and less frantic time with people just happy to get by, without being obsessed with staying young and healthy forever.

Related Articles
A modern alchemist recalls the golden years of pharmacy
The aromatic heaven of the pharmacy of old

Read more articles by Robert Gosstray

Robert Gosstray

Robert Gosstray is a retired pharmacist and the resident health writer for Midlifexpress. He is the author of The Pharmacist's Secrets: Drugs, lies and money.

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