Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Revolutionary Physick?

Hugh Mercer's Apothecary Shop, Fredericksburg, Virginia, ca. 1775.

                    Fredericksburg, Virginia was once the sight of a major Continental Army hospital at the intersection of Caroline and William Street. BGen Hugh Mercer practiced medicine in Fredericksburg before the war, but was killed in the New Jersey Campaign before the establishment of the hospital. Mercer’s Caroline Street office and apothecary shop is a now historic site, currently managed by Preservation Virginia, and many of the "medecines" found there were used at the military hospital. From Jefferson’s papers we find a list of medicines used in the hospital in that day. Several thoughts are born of this list, 1. Continental doctors thought that copious bowel movements and/or vomiting were the best treatment for just about every ill, based on the amount of emetics, cathartics, and laxatives that were kept in the medicine chest, 2. There was a lot of syphilis in the Continental Army…or at least in the Virginia and Maryland line. I suppose that playing cards, hazards, or the occasional Game of Goose were not the only recreation in the army.

                                                                                                                            December 28 1780
        Sir,
               I am persuaded your Excellency and the Honble. Council will pardon the liberty of this address, as It’s intended to relieve the Distress of the Soldiery that may occasionally be in the Hospital here.
               Doctor Rickman in September last wrote me to take Charge of the Hospital at this place and at present to find Medicine for them, Which should be repaid. I did so, and until this time attended, and found Medicine for a great many of the Virginia and Maryland Line that were ordered by the officers to be taken care of. This I carefully attended to, and sent them all away to their respective Corps except three that shall shortly be sent forward.
               As It’s not in my Power to find Medicine much longer out of my private stock for Practice, I take liberty of sending an Invoice of such as may be absolutely necessary for the Sick and wounded, to request that they may be ordered to this place, and they shall be Carefully kept for that particular purpose. As I have purchased Medicine at a very dear Rate for 12 months past, and never received any Payment or Emolument for Services done, I hope your Excellency will direct me and order payment in that Line, as I am unacquainted with the mode of application. 

I am with profound Respect, Your most Obt Hble St.

                                                                                                                            Chs. Mortimer

                           ENCLOSURE

Jallap              Tartar Emetic         Mercurial Ointment
Ipeccachuan    Glauber Salts          Quicksilver
Rhubarb          Calomel                  Cream Tartar
Salt Peter        Oil Turpentine        Gum Arabick
Bark                Plasters                  Gum Guiacum
Salt Tartar      Olive Oil                Camphire
Spermacoeti   Spanish flies           Aloes
Laudanum       Elixir Paregoric      Tow
Opium            Bals Traumatick      Splints
Basilicon       Volatiles
Paper and Whatever the Director general may think Proper

                                                                             Chs. Mortimer
                                                                             Fredericksburg Dcr. 28th 1780[1]



Dr. Mercer's pharmacoepia, apparently similar to that of Dr. Mortimer...
many of the labels are the same as in the letter above.  Evacuation and vomiting!


Jallap: A cathartic drug derived from the roots of the plant ipoemia purga, found in the mountains of central Mexico.
Tartar Emetic: Also known as Antimony. Used to induce vomiting by dissolving in wine.
Mercurial Ointment: Topical disinfectant (similar to modern mercurochrome).
Ipeccachuan: Emetic made from the root of the South American Ipegakwai plant. Also used to induce sweating, treat dysentery, and bronchitis.
Glauber Salts: Hydrate of Sodium sulfate. General purpose laxatives.
Quicksilver: Mercury. Used to treat syphilis, constipation.
Rhubarb: Roots and stems used as a powerful cathartic and laxative.
Calomel: Mercury chloride. Used as a diuretic or laxative and to treat syphylis.
Cream Tartar: Potassium bitartrate. An emulsifier used to make creams, ointments, etc.
Salt Peter: Potassium nitrite. Used to treat asthma, overactive libido, and high blood pressure
Oil Turpentine: Oleoresin, perhaps unrefined turpentine. Topically used to treat lice infestation, wound cleanser (anti-septic) or expectorant.
Gum Arabick: Sap from the Acacia tree. Used as an emulsifier for various medicinal compounds.
Bark: Jesuits or Peruvian Bark. Bark from the cinchona tree, used to treat malaria.
Plasters: Used to immobilize limbs. Used topically to treat rashes.
Gum Guiacum: Extract from the heartwood of the Guiacum plant. Used to treat syphilis, chronic gout, and rheumatism.
Salt Tartar: Used as an emulsifier in preparing medicinal compounds, ointments, etc.
Olive Oil: Used to treat a cough and as a laxative.
Camphire: Camphor. Used as a local anesthetic or to treat rashes, and as an aromatic to treat “mania”.
Sperma coeti: Used as an excipient or suspension for medicines, ointments.
Spanish flies: Secretions from the Green Spanish Fly (blistering agent) used as a topical treatment for warts.
Aloes: Used as a mild laxative, or digestive aid, and a topical ointment.
Laudanum: Alcoholic Tincture- Analgesic used as a painkiller and cough suppressant.
Elixer Paragoric: Camphorated Tincture of Opium-anti-diarrheal, expectorant.
Tow: Used for bandages, cleaning wounds, etc.
Opium: Anesthetic.
Bals Traumatick: ?
Splints: Used to set limbs.
Basilicon: Ointment containing pitch, rosin, oil, etc. Used to aid in the discharge of pus.
Volatiles:  Ammonium carbonate. Also known by Sal Volatiles or Salt of Hartshorn. An ingredient of smelling salts, also ingested as an emetic.


THIS INFORMATION IS FOR HISTORICAL PURPOSES ONLY. IT IS NOT RECOMMENDED THAT THESE COMPOUNDS OR ELEMENTS BE USED AS THEY WERE IN THE 18TH CENTURY UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.


[1] Boyd, J.P. ed., Papers of Tho. Jefferson, Vol 4., Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1951. (242-243).

2 comments:

  1. Excellent post. Yikes, some of those "medicines" requested sound scary indeed! I am sure some made you even sicker...
    Mary
    http://anhistoricallady.blogspot.com

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  2. Thank you! The letter was a great find (Gray Research Center), and having the apothecary shop close by, it was fun to actually see the medicines. Many of them are mentioned by the character Dr. Steven Maturin in O'Briens Aubrey/Maturin series of Napoleonic War novels. Now that I think about Patrick O'Brien's very dry wit, it is very comical that he is so detailed in his description of Royal Navy surgeons' prescriptions. A lot of evacuation, vomiting, and toxicity aboard His Majesty's ships. Several of these elements are combined to make the "Black Draught" or "Blue Pill". Both contained high levels of mercury-supposed to cure Melancholia (and venereal diseases), but in actuality causing mercury poisoning. These were often prescribed daily, resulting in an intake of mercury 33 times above the modern FDA limits for daily intake!

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