Saturday, January 17, 2015

Apothecaries and Medicine in the Victorian Era

by Lana Williams

In researching my recent books which are set in Victorian London, I became quite interested in apothecaries and the role they played in healthcare. As amazing as it might seem, even by the end of the Victorian period, a person could see patients and prescribe treatments without formal qualifications.

An apothecary was the lowest ranking medical practioner. They served not only as a pharmacist, but could actually prescribe medicines as well. A surgeon set broken bones, pulled teeth, treated wounds and skin diseases. Apothecaries often served as both surgeon and apothecary, kind of a one-stop shop! Quite convenient in a worrisome kind of way.

Apothecaries served a five-year apprenticeship which included a minimum of six months of hospital work. Physicians acquired a medical degree from a university which required reading Greek and Latin theory, but no clinical experience. Physicians were ‘gentlemen’ and therefore their wives could be presented at court, but not so for apothecaries or surgeons as they performed manual labor.

Doctors were normally only seen for serious problems. Most people used self-diagnosis or followed the advice of older women with experience, found information in almanacs, medical books or even magazine advice columns. Other times, they sought out the apothecary in their neighborhood.

Drugs used during this period did little to cure diseases. A large part of practicing medicine involved keeping patients comfortable while nature took its course. That’s not so different than today as many of the drugs prescribed are intended to control symptoms rather than provide a cure, such as cough syrup or pain pills. In the 1800’s, medical practioners used wine, opium narcotics and traditional herbal remedies to ease symptoms such as coughs, muscle cramps, nausea or to promote sleep. Laudanum, a liquid solution of opium in alcohol, was commonly used for everything from sleeping aids to painkillers to cough suppressants. Some found it even helped prevent loose bowels. Simple remedies, including cleanliness, proper nutrition and rest were often quite effective. Medicinal practices intended to cure, such as purging or bloodletting, often did more harm than good.

Many proprietary or “patent” medicines were heavily advertised and contained high amounts of alcohol or opiate. J. Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne claimed to cure coughs, colds, colic, spasms, bowel pains, stomach aches, and sleeplessness. The ingredients included morphine, chloral hydrate and cannabis. Godfrey's Cordial, also known as Mother's Friend, was often given to children to quiet them. This ‘remedy’ contained opium, water, and treacle but many times did more harm than good. Many of the patent medicines were ‘women’s friends’ which were prescribed for ‘female troubles’ or ‘female maladies’ including childbirth, menstruation, hysteria, and depression.

The apothecary was often a blend of old and new. He might offer predictions much like a fortune teller while mixing traditional herbal remedies. But those might be laced with cocaine or opium.

If one browsed in an apothecary shop, he might find a few unusual items to capture his interest such as a stuffed alligator or perhaps a snake in a bottle. Mysterious containers of all shapes and sizes were offered for sale that promised to cure a wide range of ills. Worn medical texts most likely lined a shelf or two beside books on herbal remedies. A tin of cocaine wool to help toothaches could be purchased. Coca would also be available as it was prescribed for pregnant women who vomited frequently. Pots and jars of skin cream were sold, many containing arsenic. Beauty aids containing arsenic, including skin wafers and complexion soap, were believed to whiten the skin and neck. A special substance used to remove freckles could be purchased, and amongst its ingredients were mercuric chloride or carbolic acid.


Drug use was high during the Industrial Revolution. Opium in particular, as well as other psychoactive drugs, were used on a widespread basis by all classes of people in Victorian Britain. When the press began to report about the large number of opium dens in London’s East End, many individuals and organizations protested, resulting in the passing of the Pharmacy Act in 1868. Until that was passed, the sale of drugs was completely unrestricted. Despite the start of registration for those prescribing medicine, the practice of dispensing them had few controls.

Using drugs on a regular basis was not considered a serious problem until the early 1900s. The drugs were banned in Britain by the passing of the Dangerous Drugs Act in 1920.

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Lana Williams writes historical romance adventures set in Victorian London and Medieval England. Her books are available at:
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13 comments:

  1. This is fascinating Lana! I've read some of your past books and it amazes me how much research you do -- I love that I not only get a great love story, but learn some history at the same time. This one is now added to my must read list!

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  2. So interesting, Lana. I love reading the descriptions on old medicine bottles. Fascinating to know the history.

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  3. Now that's one surgeon I would NOT want to visit: teeth pulling and broken bones all in one visit? Ick. Great post, thanks!

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  4. It is a little frightening, isn't it? We've come a long way! LOL

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  5. Wow--fascinating historical details! Thanks for this interesting post :D

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  6. This article was so fun to read-loved the stuffed alligator on the shelf and the idea of women getting opiates for their monthly 'hysteria'. Can't wait to see how you incorporate this research into your books.

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  7. My 4th great grandfather was an apothecary in London in about 1790. He was John Hunter. I will have to check out this book.

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