herbal medicine

A modern alchemist recalls the golden years of pharmacy

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herbal medicine

Following on from my less than complimentary comments on modern-day medical practices and the drugs they prescribe, here is a description of pharmacy as I first practised it.

I qualified in 1961 after being apprenticed for 4 years. I was following in the footsteps of all those ancient apothecaries who had been seeking to convert base metals into gold and to discover the Elixir of Youth. In breaking news (remember, you heard it here first), I did none of these things and concentrated on dispensing, compounding, formulating and occasionally procrastinating.

More breaking news: I now confess — I did convert all that dross to gold and I did find the Elixir of Youth, but I selfishly kept it all to myself. If you see an extremely good looking and youthful bloke paying for his Wheaties with small nuggets of gold, that’s me.

I spent my days making exotic preparations based on centuries of research

My days were spent making up huge ranges of preparations which we had all been well trained for at the Pharmacy College and in apprenticeship. These preparations were all based on hundreds of years of research and experience in using mostly botanical extracts and they were valid and effective for their time, with the big advantage of not having the enormous range of side-effects common to modern drugs.

It was labour intensive, time consuming and inexpensive as we made up eye drops, ear drops, nasal drops, inhalations, mixtures, creams, ointments, emulsions, lotions, liniments, pills, suppositories, douches, pessaries, powders, pastes, syrups, and many other compounds. It was necessary to learn about all types of solvents, solubilities of substances in these solvents, incompatibilities (where some substances would interact), dosages for adults, children and babies, as well as weights and measures (I first used the apothecary system of grains, drams, ounces, minims, fluid ounces and then changed to the metric grammes and millilitres).

Exotic poisons

I was fascinated by the huge collections and varieties of substances we used. Poisons of all kinds were in constant use, with the trick being able to use them in appropriate dosages and circumstances. We had stocks of all the heavy metals and their salts — Mercury, Lead, Arsenic, Copper, Zinc, Antimony and Iron — as well as stocks of organic poisons such as strychnine, cyanides and aconite.

Deadliest poison in the universe

We had some aconitine, the active alkaloid of Aconite (or wolf’s bane) and God knows why we had it. Aconitine is probably the deadliest poison in the universe, suited only for use by Russian KBG agents who stab people with umbrella tips.

More exotic poisons

We had green, white and blue vitriols — Sulphates of Iron, Zinc and Copper which had been put to great use by Lucrezia Borgia in Medieval times. The Belladonna and Digitalis alkaloids were also very potent, as well as more obscure things like Cantharides — the dried powder obtained from crushing beetles. Called ‘Spanish Fly’, it was used as an aphrodisiac but would have killed more men than it helped.

Other exotic poisons were Oil of Tansy, Oil of Mirbane and Ricin (obtained from castor oil seeds and another favourite umbrella-tip poison). A good example of a balanced use of poisons in small doses, was QES tablets. As I have previously mentioned, QES was the only effective abortion agent available for many years, and the combination of Quinine, Ergot and Strychnine — all poisons — worked well in the small doses given.

My next post will examine other strange and exotic mixtures that used whole plant extracts (including opium and cannabis) to produce a gentler, cheaper and more holistic pharmaceutical cornucopia (with far less side-effects) than we have today.

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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