The Poor Mon’s Doctor
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