The aromatic heaven of the pharmacy of old

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In my last post, I described pharmacy as I first practised it fifty years ago. It was more wholistic (and much more aromatic)  in those days because we used whole plant extracts to produce a gentler, less toxic pharmaceutical bounty than we have today. Here are a few more strange and exotic lotions and tinctures I made in that long-gone era.

Volatile and fixed oils — an aromatic heaven

Another big group of substances we used to make medicines were volatile and fixed oils. The volatile oils were derived from plants and were very aromatic, which contributed greatly to the characteristic smell of old pharmacies (lavender, orange, lemon, citronella, rose, rosemary, cardamom, Siberian fir, bergamot, cajuput, dill, caraway, aniseed, juniper, mustard, eucalyptus, eucalyptol, almond, cedar, orange-flower, cinnamon, and raspberry).

There were few unpleasant smells — several sulphides and some solvents — and smell played a big part in identifying benign and not-so-benign agents. We used many solvents — ethanol, methanol, chloroform, acetone, ether, propyl alcohol, amyl acetate ( smelled like bananas), acetaldehyde, benzene, fixed oils (olive, peanut, castor oil) and good old tap water. We were supposed to use sterile or distilled water but I always thought if it was good enough to drink, it was good enough to use in medicines.

Other exotica

Other substances included oxymels (honeys), paraffins (liquid, hard and soft), wool fat and lanoline, cocoa butter, beeswax, emulsifying agents, syrups and other sweeteners, liquorice, huge ranges of dyes and ancient galenicals  (gelsem, senega, gentian, lobelia, strammonium, rhubarb, ginger, colchicum,  peppermint, camphor, menthol, thymol,  resorcinol, phenol, creosote, coal tars of many varieties, strong acids such as Sulphuric, Hydrochloric, Nitric, Phosphoric, Acetic, Hydrobromic and alkalis such as Caustic Soda and Strong Ammonia).

Similar to cooking, there was a certain amount of satisfaction in creating creams, mixtures and other compounds, with smoothness, colour and smell all being important. We had a huge range of dyes and aromatic agents to achieve this and I have to admit to occasionally being tempted to taste a particularly enticing cream (this was weird and probably illegal).

We used pure plant extracts

What we were practising was somewhat holistic in approach since we used pure plant extracts such as opium, belladonna, cannabis, ergot, digitalis, colchicum, cinchona, senega, gentian and many others. These contained varying amounts of active alkaloids, glycosides, tannins, alcohols, and esters which had medicinal effects. For instance, opium tincture and camphorated tincture of opium contained morphine, papaverine, noscapine and codeine.

These tinctures were prescribed for coughs, pain and sedation (in combination with kaolin to treat diarrhoea and in combination with senega extract and ammonium bicarbonate to treat coughs).

The ridiculous panic over Senega and Ammonia cough mixture

The saga of Senaga & Ammonia cough mixture is illustrative of panicky legislators conniving with the medical professions to fight the scourge of little old ladies with coughs becoming opium fiends. This wonderfully effective cough expectorant was neutered by replacing camphorated tincture of opium with camphor spirit. From then on, it was mass produced and distributed by drug companies who also removed chloroform from the formula. Liquorice extract and chloroform water had been used for ages to sweeten and preserve many mixtures and was particularly effective in masking the bitterness and sharpness of the senega, ammonium bicarbonate and the opium. The senaga and ammonia mixture had been reduced to a pale and less effective blandness.

Chloroform was also banned (along with morphine tincture) when Chlorodyne was banned. This was a brilliant combination of chloroform and morphine, which would instantly correct any case of diarrhoea with just a few drops dosage.

Another great favourite

Another great old favourite was “Four Three-penn’ths” which consisted of equal parts opium tincture (laudanum), camphorated opium tincture (paregoric), aniseed spirit and peppermint spirit. Again, with just a few drops dosage, it was used for a wide range of gastric problems (and a sedative and an anti-depressant). The notorious and vicious little old ladies loved this old favourite which must have originally cost them a whole shilling to buy.

Another very good cough mixture was Ipecac and Squill, a mixture of two tinctures- ipecacuanha (which in higher dosage is a very effective emetic) and Scillae (in higher doses a cardio-toxin). In small and balanced doses, flavoured with honey (oxymel), this was safe even for infants.

Bromides  were often prescribed to lower the sex drive of men. They were used extensively in the First World War, being doled out to soldiers in order to take their minds off sex and concentrate on slaughtering people instead. The only other treatment doled out by army doctors was Gentian Violet which was splashed over everything from tinea to syphilis.

My next post will examine other well-established, cheap and effective concoctions from the past and the relentless and destructive inroads modern drug companies have made into the holistic pharmacy of old.

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A modern alchemist recalls the golden years of pharmacy

Author: 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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