Thursday, June 28, 2012

History: Medicine Chest

Our mate and supporter of Triple P David brought an article over at Daily Mail UK to my attention on Tuesday.  While I'm not a huge fan of Daily Mail - really, how many of us care what Pippa Middleton is wearing? - this piece was one of their rare gems about a true historic find. 

According to the article, a magnificent "surgeon's chest" dates from 1817 and was found recently in a house in Derbyshire, England.  Virtually untouched except for a few dosings, most of the bottles and jars retain their contents and the chest, made of mahogany, is complete with its original instruction booklet.

The piece in its entirety will be auctioned in Derby this coming Saturday and speculations as to its original use are given by auctioneer Charles Hanson:

It may have been used out of hours by a doctor on call, or owned by the family of a large country house to carry with them on a long journey by horse or carriage. 

Or, if I may, by sea.  This sort of chest was exactly the type that well-provisioned naval surgeons would have had aboard ship in most of the navies of Europe and certainly the U.S. Navy by the Napoleonic Wars.  This tradition of bringing boxes of medicines - and of course implements - aboard along with a surgeon/barber probably originated with Henry VIII's English Navy.  As noted here at Triple P before, Henry's great warship Mary Rose had a similar surgeon's box aboard her. 

This type of medicine chest would also have been coveted highly by pirates and privateers.  Though a legitimate privateer might ship a surgeon (for instance, many of the larger U.S. privateers during the War of 1812 did), pirates almost unanimously never did.  Finding a surgeon's chest such as this aboard a prize would have been a boon to every man in the crew. The contents would, for the most part, have been familiar to the sailors.  Although their knowledge of doses and weights may not have been up to snuff, they would have had a general idea of what to do with the contents of the chest.

As to what is in this individual specimen, the spectrum of medicines seems to cover most ailments.  Manna, noted by Mrs. Child in The Family Nurse as a "mild, agreeable laxative that may be safely administered to children and the aged" is included.  Also available is peppermint water which would have been used not only for nausea and vomiting but also, again to quote Mrs. Child, "to cover the taste of disagreeable medicines, and diminish their griping effects."  A bottle of Cream of tartar might have been used as a laxative; Mrs. Child also recommends it mixed with lemon in a tisane to fevers. 

Of course the most popular medicine of the era, laudanum, is not forgotten.  A tincture of opium in alcohol, laudanum was the go-to medication for everything from hysteria to anesthesia.  Yes, old Doc Sawbones knew enough to give a sailor a heavy dose of opium before he cut off that gangrenous limb.  If he had any available, that is.  He might also get into the stuff himself, forming a disagreeable habit that could ruin him.  This was certainly the case with Patrick O'Brian's fictional Doctor Stephen Maturin who managed to free himself from addiction through sheer force of will.

The surgeon's chest found in Derby is a rare and important find that could give historians new insights into how our ancestors treated disease.  Let us hope, as the article notes, that it is purchased by someone who can not only appreciate it, but share it as the "time capsule" that it really is.

Header: Surgeon's chest via Daily Mail UK


Undine said...

Historical value aside, it's a lovely thing, isn't it? I wish the article had explained where and how the chest was discovered. It's remarkable that something so valuable could have been barely used and then evidently just forgotten.

Really like the new blog design, by the way.

Pauline said...

I agree with you on all counts and a part of me wishes that this weren't about to end up at auction but was headed for a museum or university and more research. It is very lovely as well, and obviously belonged to someone of privilege. Let's hope we hear more about it in the future.

And thank you as well, my dear; I very much value your opinion.

Timmy! said...

Oh, the blessed laudanum, Pauline... If only we could all be so strong of will to resist her temptations.

I have to agree with Undine too... It is a beautiful thing and I hope it ends up where people can appreciate it and not in some private collection.

Pauline said...

Yeah, well, I consider myself more Jack than Stephen. No laudanum for me, thank you, but I won't be giving up the grog any time soon.

And yes; let us hope this invaluable historical treasure finds a good home.