Musings on Medicines- Apothecary overload

Posted By on May 10, 2011

Some of my new aquisitions

Another Market Fair has passed, and lots of money has exchanged hands for goods.  My list of aquirements is fairly extensive, and I am happy to report that the majority was related to improving my surgeon’s impression.  However, this year seemed to be less about surgical tools (which was primarily because I’ve bought almost everything Godwin makes related to surgery), and more about  incidental supplies, and some apothecary items.




Look! Someone's making tooth powders from period recipes!

Deborah Peterson’s Pantry was in attendance as usual, and this year, I saw items that caught my eye to add to the apothecary collection that I am amassing- cochineal, hartshorn, salt petre, and gum arabic, which excited my mind to the area of medicines.

While the Apothecaries and Surgeons were primarily different people in different shops, there were cases of Apothecary-Surgeons in the colonies in the 18th Century.  This was mainly because there wasn’t a true market in many small towns and cities for multiple apothecaries and surgeons.  So in my impression of 18th Century health and wellness, I also have an extensive collection of bottles full of herbs and a copy of the 1737 “Poor Planters Physician” which I bring out to discuss.  The “Poor Planter’s Physician” was kind of a Ladies Home remedy book, which most families took with them into the wilderness to self diagnose and to grow herbs for curing the illness they diagnosed.

Many people were unable to afford an Apothecary, or were even close enough to a town to use their services, so in many cases, the family would raise a medicinal garden, and carry lancets with them for their own operations of bleeding to realign the humours. The book is very concise, which makes it easy to carry and in many cases, to memorize what herbs were used for what purpose.  Its been great, but, the rabbit hole beckoned again for more.

or Every Man His Own Doctor

See, short and sweet!

When I first started going through google books, looking for the ever elusive primary source documentation, I came across a 1747 Pharmacopoeia- a fairly extensive book of preparations, potions, salves and other items for alleviating symptoms and curing illness.  But in addition to the instructions for these various things, there’s a whole section on understanding why medicine works, and the different ways to prepare the medicines.  This section is almost like a chemistry book, in explaining how crystallization and other processes work, except that it really does show you that for the most part, medicine is a philosophy, not a true science.  The first four chapters of this part of the book are on the four elements and how they play into our health and how they play into the medicines.  It provides great insight for how they were deducing why certain medicines would  work for certain illnesses, but for those of us who have had modern chemistry, and have an understanding of modern medicine, it does make your head hurt at times.

For example- in the chapter on Fire, it basically states that fire is everywhere and no where at the same time, and yet while there are ways to identify fire, they aren’t really true ways to identify fire because other things can be identified in the same way.  Its fairly esoteric, and I found that I could only really read about 20 pages at a time in order to not have a major mental conflict with how wrong I felt these principles were. That also helped me to not be overwhelmed with the reality that this book was almost 1,000 pages to read and comprehend.

Why yes, I did print out the whole book. Its huge!

So in purchasing the new ingredients, I needed to refer back to this manual for some receipts that included them. Fortunately, googlebooks also has a search function for within the books it has in its collection, which made it quick and easy for me to find these.  For New Market Days this past Saturday, I ended up writing them out in quill and ink, but of course, its led me back to the massive book that is the pharmacopoeia.  In just doing a general search to test its functionality, I found 70 references for Mercury alone!  I want to try to understand some of these medicines more, to explain to people more of why they used what they used.  I like having an understanding of what they were thinking and how they were thinking of these issues of health, and I think that even though its going to be a feat and a half, the dispensary will be extremely beneficial for that.  Additionally, its great to be able to show people how Tums and other antacids came from a compound of Oyster Shells, gum arabic, nutmeg, chalk, and sugar.

Yes from this!





So don’t be surprised if one night you find me just curled up in a corner rocking slowly, because I can’t comprehend how we didn’t know that oxygen was important for survival, or how it got to the rest of the body from the lungs, or how fire is in ice!  Because I’m really just preparing for the one day I’m sucked into a time warp and become a character in a Diana Gabaldon novel.

Coming soon- making kids pass out, and experimentation with the new tooth powders!

(Special thanks to Tad Miller for my new syrup of roses jar, Laura Carpenter and Billy Myers for my new delft jar in which I put my hartshorn, Katie of Ageless Artifice for making tooth powders, and of course Deb Peterson for having her awesome sutlery of unique items for cookery, which I’ve bastardized into using for apothecary work.)

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