Spoonful of sugar, stat!

by Alethea Drexler

archives assistant

We received an inquiry a few weeks ago that involved a question about nineteenth century medications, and it turned into a rather interesting fact-search.  While I have it on my mind, I thought we could take a look at one of our antique medicine cases.

We have several doctors’ bags and lots of vials and bottles of medicine.  This is one of the smaller ones, and would probably have been carried in a larger bag.  It dates from the turn of the 20th century.  The case is about a foot long and covered in leather.

MS135 Mann Realia collection, box “medical tools, devices, and medicine bags”

Early 20th century medicine case

(As always: Click on the picture for a larger version.)

There is a hinge along the long side and there are two rows of bottles inside.  The pages that hold the bottles fold forward so the doctor would have a place to keep the paper envelopes in which he dispensed pills.  Apparently he was A.G. Boss Brown (maybe he meant A.G. “Boss” Brown?) from Bosworth, Missouri.  Bosworth is east-northeast of Kansas City and had 382 residents in 2000.  I haven’t been able to find how many residents it had in the decades between 1890 and 1920, though.

The open case and pill packets

Some of the pill vials still contain pills or powder. The vials are about three inches long and have metal, screw-on caps.  The labels are rudimentary: They have the name of the contents and its components in grains, but nothing else.  Strychnine includes the warning “Poison!” but it is the only one, even though most of the medications contain compounds that are potentially toxic.

The pill vials

The contents are mostly plant-derived and the ingredients are fairly repetitive.  This kit predates many medications that we consider staples today, including sulfonamides and antibiotics.  Laxatives seem to have been the order of the day.

Really, it’s the stuff of nightmares:

Top row, left to right:

1. Calomel aromatic – Calomel is another name for mercury chloride, used as a diuretic, laxative, and emetic in the days of “heroic medicine“, which, thankfully, are long past.  Heroic medicine basically involved using the most aggressive treatments available, and included bleeding (which had fallen out of favor by the time this kit was in use) and strong purgatives (drugs that caused vomiting, diarrhea, or sweating).  We know now, of course, that the additional physical stress inflicted on patients who were already ill frequently did more harm than good.

2. BarbitalBarbital was an early barbiturate, used as a sleep aid.

3. “Sore throat” – contains: acetanilid (analgesic and fever-reducer); tincture of aconite (another analgesic and fever-reducer.  Extraordinarily poisonous in anything but minute doses); tincture of belladonna (a nerve blocker that would act on the involuntary muscle system and would also reduce pain); mercury biniodide (still sold by herbalists as a remedy for throat pain and inflammation); extract of licorice (used to soothe the digestive tract, although in this case it might be a flavoring.  I don’t plan to taste this to find out, though!); caffeine (increases the effects of some medications); thymol (used topically as an antiseptic, but in this case probably another analgesic); sugar (too little, too late, I suspect.  Most of these compounds are reputed to be ill-tasting); “Aromatics” – I’m not entirely sure how this is meant.  I may refer to compounds used in processing the active ingredients.

4) Lupulin and bromide – This was difficult to find and I’m not clear on its purpose.  It might have been a catch-all remedy for “hysterical” or menopausal women.   Lupulin may have been Humulus lupulus, which apparently has mild sedative effects.  This compound also contained scutellarin (used to treat cardiomyopathy and other ailments of the heart); ergotin (a fungal extract that acts as a vasoconstrictor.  It’s also a hallucinogen and a precursor to LSD); macrotin (a now-obscure term for extract of cohosh, used to treat a variety of ailments including sore throat, depression, and various “female troubles” such as hot flashes and menstrual irregularity); hyoscyamine sulfate (a muscle paralyzer used to treat gastrointestinal disorders); zinc bromide (possibly a preservative in this case).

5) Caripeptic with charcoal – this is usually used as an absorbent and neutralizer in cases of poisoning or indigestion.  We used to have to give charcoal, mixed with water, with a large oral syringe, at the vet’s office.  It was incredibly messy; tablet form would have been a lot easier if we could have convinced the dogs to eat them.

6) Illegible – sticky dark brown pills the size of M&M’s.

7)  Strychnine sulfate “Poison!” – The only label that gets a poison warning even though it’s hardly the only poisonous substance in the box.  Strychnine causes muscle contractions and was a popular laxative and treatment for gastrointestinal disorders well into the twentieth century.   Seems like a rather drastic remedy, doesn’t it?

8) Illegible

9) Mercury protiodide – This seems to have been given promiscuously for all sorts of ailments from acne to kidney disease to syphilis, until the early twentieth century.

10) Illegible

Second row, left to right:

11) Vial missing

12) Dover’s powder (opium preparation) – An opium and ipecac preparation used to treat fever, as late as the 1960’s.

13) Anti-ConstipationAloin (an extract of various aloe plants; a stimulant laxative); podophyllin (the resin of the American mayapple.  Used at one point to treat genital warts, but in this case to clear bile); oleoresin capsicum (nowadays, this means “pepper spray”, but here it was probably intended to promote circulation and increase intestinal secretions); and our old friends strychnine and extract of belladonna.

14) Cathartic vegetable (liver) – Yes, that’s what the label says.  Contains “powder aloes” (Aloin, the purgative); jalap (purgative); podophyllin (remember: To clear bile); extract of belladonna; “ol. tigii” (no clue.  I think “ol” probably means “oleoresin” but I’m not sure, and I can’t find anything about “tigii”); oleoresin ginger (promotes production of bile, and might also alleviate nausea).  When my dog developed liver failure secondary to a severe gastrointestinal ailment, she was prescribed a medication to clear her bile ducts; these pellets were meant to do the same thing.

15) Cascara Sagrada compound – “Sacred bark”; extract of the buckthorn plant; yet another harsh purgative and laxative.

16) Diarrhea pelletsMorphine sulfate (reduces intestinal motility; this would cause constipation in a normal patient but is obviously desirable in one with diarrhea); calomel; capsicum; ipecac (usually used to induce vomiting; I’m not sure what its purpose was here); camphor (anesthetic and antimicrobial)

17) Laxative granulesCascarin (more buckthorn); Aloin; nux vomica (a plant source of strychnine); belladonna; ipecac; capsicum; aromatic oils.  These little terrors apparently contain just about every purgative and laxative a doctor had in his arsenal!

18) Acetanilid and sodium – This seems to have been another fever and possibly cough remedy. Acetanilid[e]; codeine (analgesic, antidiarrheal, and antitussive); sodium salicylic (sodium salicylate; analgesic and fever-reducer).

19) Cactus compound – used to treat cardiac afflictions.  Cactus grandiflorus; Glonoin (an old trade name for nitroglycerin; reduces blood pressure and increases heart rate); Sparteine sulfate (an extract of the scotch broom plant; regulates the heartbeat); Digitalin (foxglove extract; controls heart-rate and improves strength of heart contractions); strychnine sulfate; strophartin (not sure.  There is a family of mushrooms stropharia, but they seem to have purely psychedelic uses).

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