The Poor Mon’s Doc­tor

Black Country Bugle - - NEWS - Gail Mid­dle­ton

BACK in the days be­fore the NHS, only the rich could af­ford to see a doc­tor. So our fore­bears re­lied mostly on home­made reme­dies.

Those of a cer­tain age will re­call tra­di­tional cure-alls to ward off sea­sonal ills – hav­ing your chest slathered in goose fat be­ing one that many Bu­gle read­ers have men­tioned, over the years. But, apart from store cup­board reme­dies for when ‘yo’m mid­dlin’, there were count­less pills and po­tions on sale to treat com­mon ail­ments.

In much ear­lier times, dis­rep­utable ‘quacks’ fleeced gullible cus­tomers – ped­dling weird and won­der­ful an­ti­dotes to all kinds of ills. They made a liv­ing play­ing on peo­ple’s fear of ill­ness and dis­ease. And, with plague and small­pox still rife, quacks made a killing – their medicines of­ten caus­ing more harm than the ill­ness it­self.

In those days, if the main bread­win­ner was struck down, the whole fam­ily could go un­der. Lit­tle won­der they parted with a few pen­nies in hope of a cure.

In his book, ‘Jour­nal of the Plague Year’, Daniel De­foe de­scribes how “peo­ple ran madly af­ter ev­ery quack and moun­te­bank and prac­tic­ing old woman who had an an­ti­dote or rem­edy to sell”.

Scathingly, De­foe notes how the quacks ad­ver­tised their cures as ‘in­fal­li­ble pills’ and ‘sov­er­eign cor­dials’. Equally scep­ti­cal was physi­cian and writer, Oliver Gold­smith, de­plor­ing the na­tion’s ad­dic­tion to these cure-alls or ‘specifics’. But, as suc­cess­ful, mid­dle class au­thors, De­foe and Gold­smith could af­ford to sneer.

For the vast ma­jor­ity, there was lit­tle al­ter­na­tive to ‘specifics’ – many con­tain­ing dan­ger­ous sub­stances like opium, mer­cury and an­ti­mony. While many more were lit­tle more than cor­dials made from coloured wa­ter, or pills made from chalk; to­tally use­less against plague, cholera or small­pox! In the worst cases, toxic or adul­ter­ated specifics could prove fa­tal.


A safer al­ter­na­tive was to visit an apothe­cary, an early med­i­cal prac­ti­tioner who made and dis­pensed medicines to physi­cians, sur­geons and the pub­lic. Apothe­caries also of­fered med­i­cal ad­vice plus a range of ser­vices per­formed, to­day, by spe­cial­ists – in­clud­ing mid­wifery and surgery. Usu­ally, the apothe­cary op­er­ated from a shop, where ev­ery­day goods rubbed shoul­ders with in­gre­di­ents for drugs and patent medicines.

Most apothe­caries were men, al­though there are records of fe­male fam­ily mem­bers mak­ing and dis­pens­ing drugs. Like our mod­ern phar­ma­cists, apothe­caries had to ac­quire an en­cy­clopaedic knowl­edge of herbs and chem­i­cals and their ef­fects, be­fore qual­i­fy­ing as a skilled prac­ti­tioner. And, just like to­day, their shops were like mini health cen­tres, of­fer­ing a range of health ser­vices to the com­mu­nity.

Dur­ing the late 19th cen­tury, the med­i­cal pro­fes­sion in­creas­ingly took on more de­fined and spe­cific roles, and apothe­caries were con­fined to the role of dis­pens­ing phar­ma­cists.

In ear­lier times, the roles of apothe­cary and phar­ma­cist had dif­fered. Phar­ma­cists used a glass car­boy as a sym­bol out­side their premises, while apothe­caries dis­played a pes­tle and mor­tar sign over their shop. With the vast ma­jor­ity of peo­ple still un­able to read and write, eas­ily de­ci­pher­able shop signs were vi­tal – es­pe­cially when medicines were needed quickly, dur­ing out­breaks of plague and other deadly dis­eases.

Dur­ing the 1750s, when plate glass win­dows for shop fronts ar­rived, phar­ma­cists be­gan us­ing glass car­boys in their win­dow dis­plays. In 1760, the old pro­ject­ing shop signs were banned, to save space in over­crowded streets, where rows of old tim­ber build­ings nearly met in the mid­dle. From now on, traders re­lied on win­dow dis­plays to at­tract cus­tomers.


The early phar­ma­cies were pos­i­tively ablaze with coloured glass bot­tles. Used since the 1600s, they pro­tected chem­i­cal sub­stances from light dam­age. The glass was also less chem­i­cally ac­tive than the old ce­ramic con­tain­ers. Orig­i­nally, black was thought to be the most ef­fec­tive colour for con­tain­ers – but blue glass was more pop­u­lar. The medicines were pro­tected and you could still see them in­side the bot­tle. The same went for dark green and pur­ple glass. Even­tu­ally, am­ber coloured glass bot­tles came to dom­i­nate, pro­vid­ing cheap but ad­e­quate pro­tec­tion.

Pro­tect­ing the pub­lic against poi­sons was an­other mat­ter! Vic­to­rian and Ed­war­dian homes were awash with dan­ger­ous sub­stances. Ac­ci­den­tal poi­son­ing hap­pened fre­quently – not to men­tion the more cal­cu­lated kind – as most homes were a par­adise for poi­son­ers!

Orig­i­nally, poi­sons came in blue glass con­tain­ers, and toxic sub­stances in green glass. It was con­fus­ing – and use­less if you had colour blind­ness or visual im­pair­ment. With a largely il­lit­er­ate pop­u­lace, proper cod­ing for dan­ger­ous sub­stances was vi­tal. So, phar­ma­cists be­gan us­ing tex­tured glass con­tain­ers for poi­sons and a range of dif­fer­ent coloured la­bels – red la­bels printed in black for poi­son, and red print­ing on white la­bels de­not­ing sub­stances for ex­ter­nal use only. But it was far from fool­proof.

To fur­ther safe­guard the pub­lic, leg­is­la­tion was passed in 1899, mak­ing it com­pul­sory for phar­ma­cies to put poi­son into spe­cial bot­tles, es­pe­cially where the phar­ma­cist did not have a sep­a­rate poi­son cabi­net.

But it wasn’t un­til 1935 that ribbed and grooved poi­son bot­tles were made com­pul­sory for prod­ucts used in the home. Mak­ing the bot­tles in­stantly recog­nis­able by touch was a real step for­ward in the bat­tle to pre­vent ac­ci­den­tal poi­son­ing. The poi­son bot­tles could be ribbed or stud­ded, with red warn­ing la­bels, and some even came with small bells at­tached.

By the 1930s, the way medicines were sold had come a long way from the shady deal­ings of the quacks and moun­te­banks. Even so, man­u­fac­tur­ers of ‘specifics’ still made wildly ex­trav­a­gant claims to tempt buy­ers. And, like many food man­u­fac­tur­ers, they adul­ter­ated their medicines, to cut costs.


In 1938, the Food and Drugs Act banned adul­ter­ation and mis­la­belling. The fol­low­ing year, the Can­cer Act re­stricted ad­verts of prod­ucts claim­ing to treat can­cer. In 1941, the Phar­macy and Medicines Act banned the ad­ver­tise­ment of prod­ucts claim­ing to treat cataracts, epilepsy, Brights Dis­ease and tu­ber­cu­lo­sis. And, for the first time, man­u­fac­tur­ers had to list in­gre­di­ents on pack­ag­ing.

By 1948, the newly es­tab­lished Na­tional Health Ser­vice meant pre­scrip­tion medicines were free for all. At last, or­di­nary peo­ple could see doc­tors – no longer re­ly­ing on home reme­dies, po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous po­tions from quacks, or cheap, adul­ter­ated ‘specifics’.

To get a feel of what the old phar­ma­cies were like, at the Black Coun­try Liv­ing Mu­seum you can visit a re­con­struc­tion of the one be­long­ing to H. Emile Doo, orig­i­nally serv­ing the com­mu­nity in Hale­sowen Road, Nether­ton. Emile qual­i­fied as a chemist in 1908, in­her­it­ing the busi­ness from his fa­ther, James, in 1929. Emile was a chemist for 60 years and died in 1970.

In the late 1970s, dur­ing my first teach­ing job, I met his only child, Betty, a re­spected met­al­lur­gist at what was then West Bromwich Tech­ni­cal Col­lege. She was a great char­ac­ter, full of sto­ries about her well­known fa­ther’s shop.

Much of the stock dates from Emile’s fa­ther’s time. The phar­macy was a real com­mu­nity hub. Back then, there were no mother and baby clin­ics. So women brought ba­bies in for weigh­ing, at a penny a time – and for es­sen­tial sup­plies, like the old dou­ble-ended feed­ing bot­tles and in­fant teething pow­ders. The lat­ter came in sa­chets, folded and sealed with a small gad­get, now on dis­play. Even into the 20th cen­tury, many medicines were dis­pensed in pow­der form.

Both Doos had a good rep­u­ta­tion for their hand-made medicines and pills and you can see the pill-maker tool, where the pill paste was rolled into a long roll and placed on a grate. As the han­dle was turned, pills ap­peared on the tray – tiny balls which were then coated in sugar to make them eas­ier to swal­low, and more palat­able.

From the 1880s un­til the birth of the NHS, Emile Doo, like his fa­ther be­fore him, served as Nether­ton’s ‘poor man’s doc­tor’. For those with­out means, phar­ma­cies were life savers – and still are to­day.

An Ed­war­dian ad­vert for one of count­less ‘specifics’

An apothe­cary mix­ing a po­tion

In­side H. Emile Doo’s chemist at the Black Coun­try Liv­ing Mu­seum, once of Hale­sowen Road, Nether­ton

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