Category Archives: Apothecaries

Controlled substances in Roman law and pharmacy?

By Molly Jones-Lewis

Let me begin with a passage from the Digest of Roman Law within the section on the Lex Cornelia on murderers and poisoners (D.

It is laid down by another decree of the senate that dealers in cosmetics[1] are liable to the penalty of this law (the Lex Cornelia on murderers and poisoners) if they recklessly hand over to anyone hemlock (cicuta), salamander, aconite, pine-worms (pituocampae), or buprestis,[2] mandragora, or, except for the purpose of purification, cantharis beetles.

This particular decree of the senate was preserved by the jurist Marcian (active c. 200 and 222 CE), but the actual decree could date from any time between 81BCE, when it was passed, and Marcian’s own day. The main test of the law was not whether or not a murder had been committed, as it is with most modern legal systems, but the intent to murder. Penalties ranged from relegation (temporary exile) to death by wild animals.

Negligence should not have exposed someone to its penalties, but there is evidence in both the legal and literary record of medical professionals who unwittingly aided in a murder being prosecuted under the Lex Cornelia. Galen, for instance, mentions one unfortunate doctor who was executed when a wicked stepmother (of course) claimed a drug was for her own use, only to have her slaves slip it into her stepson’s food.

Other examples preserved in the Digest involve gynecologists, aphrodisiacs, and abortifacients; gender bias very likely accounts for the departure from the intent-test. Add to that the demographics of medical professionals in the Roman Empire–many of them were slaves and freedmen–and the pattern becomes even more clear. Elite moral panic likely drove the legislative policy in this decree of the senate, with chilling effects. Under it, suppliers are held liable for selling commonly used pharmaceutical ingredients.

So would these highly toxic items that an ancient pharmacist would carry? Absolutely! Dioskourides, author of a first century CE pharmacy manual (and standard reference for Roman pharmacists), listed several uses for them.[3]

“Spanish Fly” continues to enjoy an unfortunate reputation as a “natural” aphrodisiac, even in this age of safer alternatives. Image credit: Nuvalife.
“Spanish Fly” continues to enjoy an unfortunate reputation as a “natural” aphrodisiac, even in this age of safer alternatives. Image credit: Nuvalife.

We begin at the end with Blister Beetles (Cantharis, buprestis, pituocampae): Here, I am grouping three similar insects, just as Dioskourides did (2.61). These insects are more popularly known as “Spanish Fly.” The oil produced by these beetles causes the skin to blister, and this made it a useful item for removing growths.

But Dioskourides does not mention its most famous application, and most dangerous–blister beetle poisoning irritates the urogenital tract, causing an erection. It was, in essence, ancient Viagra. It seems to have been responsible for quite a few accidental and embarrassing deaths, and likely accounts for the general anxiety surrounding the use of aphrodisiacs in Roman law and armchair scientists like Pliny the Elder.[4] It also shows up in some cringe-worthy gynecological recipes, and must have caused many a woman severe discomfort.

Cosmetics sellers would stock it for people with warts, women would keep it handy, and Roman legislators were concerned. It is hardly surprising that this class of insect dominates the senate’s decree.

The shape of the flower resembles the hood of a monk, hence the English common name. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The shape of the flower resembles the hood of a monk, hence the English common name. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Aconite, also known as monkshood, wolfsbane, and the “queen of poisons,” is best known today as Professor Snape’s go-to icebreaker question for Potions class. It is deadly–strong enough to cause numbness when it comes in contact with the skin–and that is precisely what put it on the senate’s list. Dioskourides 4.77 declares it useful for killing wolves, and nothing else, but urban sales were almost certainly aimed at eliminating human nuisances like abusive slaveowners and inconvenient husbands, at least in the minds of lawmakers.

The English name reflects the long history of identifying the somewhat anthropomorphic form of this root. Dioskourides differentiates between a “Male” and “Female” form – this one is the female variety. Image credit:
The English name reflects the long history of identifying the somewhat anthropomorphic form of this root. Dioskourides differentiates between a “Male” and “Female” form – this one is the female variety. Image credit:

Another alumna of Harry Potter, the mandrake is best known for its use in magic. However, it also has a strong effect as a sedative and anesthetic; it was used as such into the early 1900s. But too much could cause death, as Dioskourides warns in his lengthy list of applications (4.75). It’s hallucinogenic properties, too, combined with its sedative effects, would have made it a prime candidate for abuse and accidental death. No wonder it makes the senate’s list!

Even today, Hemlock remains infamous for its role in the death of Socrates. So why on earth would a pharmacy sell it? Dioscorides 4.78 recommends it for topical applications only, first as a cure for shingles and erysipelas, both common and painful skin conditions. He goes on to prescribe it to stop lactation, to keep youthful breasts small, and, alarmingly, to cause a boy’s testicles to shrivel. The most shocking suggestion, though, is that it be applied to the testicles to prevent nocturnal emissions – surely a recipe for disaster if the man in question failed to wash his hands carefully.

Small jars excavated in the prison in the Athenian Agora, possibly used for the executioner’s Hemlock. Author’s image, 2006.
Small jars excavated in the prison in the Athenian Agora, possibly used for the executioner’s Hemlock. Author’s image, 2006.

So we have in this list a number of items common in recipes and associated with women and medical professionals, both of whom might respond to their systemic oppression with the covert violence of poisoning. If you were to open a pharmacy in the bustling streets of the Roman empire–especially if you were a woman, freedman, or both– it would be best to think twice about why your patient is so keen to buy his cantharis in bulk.

[1] The ingredients in cosmetics and pharmacy were often similar, and likewise cosmetics were made to also have medical benefits.

[2] J. B. Rives rightly suggests (n. 22) that the word “bubrostis” is a misspelling of “buprestis.”

[3] See Lily Beck’s excellent translation and commentary for the most likely identification of the species involved. Taxonomy and nomenclature in antiquity is imprecise by modern standards; it can be difficult to link ancient names to known species.

[4] For example, Natural History 25.25: “I do not include abortifacients in my account, and not even love potions, remembering that Lucullus the most famous general perished from such a potion.”

From bloodstone to fish soup: iron recipes

By Marieke Hendrikksen

In my research on the use of metals in eighteenth-century medical chemistry, iron has a special place. Unlike other metals, which were increasingly regarded as dangerous, iron remained a safe bet in blood-related diseases. However, up until the early nineteenth century, this understanding was not so much based on a chemical understanding of iron, but on the ancient principle of sympathetic medicine, in which a cure is associated – often materially – with the body part or disease it treats. An excellent example of this is bloodstone.

From antiquity onwards, the terms ‘lapis haematites’ and ‘bloodstone’ were used to refer to minerals or precious stones spotted or streaked with red, or red in colour, used as pigments by artisans and medicinally in the treatment of hemorrhage, or as a charm against injury or bleeding. Most descriptions seem to refer either to what is now known as heliotrope, a form of chalcedony, or more commonly to hematite, an iron oxide. Whereas in hermetic alchemical texts ‘blood’ often refers to the transforming arcanum, now commonly believed to be a form of mercury, bloodstone occurs predominantly in pharmacopeia and is clearly linked to blood because of its blood-like pigments. A quick test in my back yard shows how easy it is to yield ‘blood’ from bloodstone:

Grinding some chips of bloodstone gives a rusty red powder...
Grinding some chips of bloodstone gives a rusty red powder…
Result after adding some water.
Result after adding some water.

By the early eighteenth century, bloodstone was routinely listed in city pharmacopeia as a mineral that had to be stocked in the apothecary shop. Its association with and supposed influence on the blood was implied by its use in recipes for styptics, without reference to its iron-like nature. This does appear in more detailed sources in Latin though. The Amsterdam physician Stephen Blankaart for example described it in his 1701 Opera medica, theoretica, practica et chirurgica (Volume 1) as ‘dark red stone, like the name perhaps suggests coagulates the blood. It appears in long streaks, like wood, and can be split into sharp needles. It is found in the veins of iron mines and can be consumed by rust.’ 

Recipe for 'cookies' to cure excessive periods and bleeding hemorrhoids, consisting mainly of red ingredients. From Wouter van Lis's Pharmacopoea.
Recipe for ‘cookies’ to cure excessive periods and bleeding hemorrhoids, consisting mainly of red ingredients. From Wouter van Lis’s Pharmacopoea.

A clear example of how bloodstone was understood and applied by early modern apothecaries can be found in Wouter van Lis’s bilingual 1747 Pharmacopoea Galeno-Chemico-Medica, which gives information in both Latin and Dutch on the same page.[1] Van Lis gained a doctorate in medicine from Utrecht University in 1745 and probably authored this book to capitalize on his previous experience as an apothecary while he set up a practice as physician in another city.

Van Lis lists Bloodstone as a semi-metal, but he also refers to the origins of its name: ‘Bloodstone has a Rock- Earth- and Metal-like nature. Because of its paint that resembles blood, or because it is a styptic, it is called Bloodstone.’ In the chapter ‘Medicinal biscuits and stones,’ two recipes are listed for cookies containing bloodstone: they are said to cure heavy menses and bleeding haemorrhoids, as well as bloody stool. These two recipes are clearly based on sympathetic rather than chemical principals; they contain predominantly red ingredients, like coral and red flowers.

Ironically, anaemia caused by iron deficiency is still the most common nutritional health problem in the world today. I was fascinated to learn that health researchers are battling anaemia in rural Cambodia with reusable ‘lucky iron fish’ that are added to boiling soup or rice. The small amounts of iron released during cooking ensure the sufficient intake of iron. A vital part of the success of the ‘fish’ is its shape: fish is both a staple in the local diet, and a symbol of luck in Cambodian culture. Not exactly sympathetic medicine in the early modern sense, but this shows how important cultural understandings of materiality still can be in ensuring the correct use of medicinal substances and dietary supplements.

Just one final note–although iron, especially in small amounts, is essential and one of the more harmless metals for humans, an overdose can be poisonous. Like always, the dose makes the poison.

[1] Van Lis, Wouter, Gualtheri van Lis Pharmacopoea Galeno-Chemico-Medica… = Meng- Schei- … / Wouter van Lis Meng- Schei- En Geneeskonstige Artseny-Winkel (Amsterdam: Jan Morterre, 1747).

Of Quacks and Caustics

By Samantha Sandassie

Interior of Wellcome library, shelves in Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Interior of Wellcome library, shelves in
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

In 1694, surgeon William Cowper and other members of the Royal Society gathered to test a Vulnerary Powder peddled by an apothecary named John Colbatch.  The powder, Colbatch argued, was a styptic that staunched the flow of blood and allowed wounds to heal much faster.

Given the growing importance of military action in the period, with the Third Anglo-Dutch War (1672-1674) and the Nine Years’ War (1689-1697), a medicine that could help out on the battlefield was invaluable.  Practitioners were moving away from cauterizing wounds with heated instruments to stop blood loss and increasingly replacing it with tourniquets in combination with powders and liquids that could staunch wounds and accelerate the healing process. William Clowes, for example, used a styptic powder whose ingredients he guarded fiercely while Richard Wiseman used successfully the so-called “Royal Stiptick Water.”

Colbatch claimed that he did numerous animal experiments that proved his powder’s efficacy.  As he stated, “I began to make Experiments upon Dogs and other Animals, Wounding them in the most desperate manner I could contrive; and in about a Hundred Experiments that I made, I had not above five that miscarried.”[1]

London surgeons felt this too good to be true and responded with everything from polite disbelief to outright scorn.  Did Colbatch, a mere apothecary, stumble upon a revolutionary new method of treating wounds?  Or was he yet another quack on the London landscape?

William Cowper. Source:  wikicommons
William Cowper. Source: wikicommons

Cowper, a noted surgeon and anatomist, decided to replicate Colbatch’s experiments to test the powder himself. In a letter published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, he noted: “THE Report of Wonderful Cures wrought by Mr. Colbatch’s Styptick Pouder, so entertained the Expectations of divers Persons, that amongst others I thought my self obliged to obtain some convincing Proofs of its Operations.”[2]

To begin, Cowper experimented on two dogs, applying Colbatch’s Vulnerary Powder to their wounds. In both cases, the dogs recovered suitably and Cowper and his colleagues were excited, their hopes raised that Colbatch had, indeed, developed a powder that could help save lives.

Keeping in mind the successful animal experiments, Cowper and his colleagues made their way to London’s St. Bartholomew’s Hospital and applied the powder to two amputation stumps. First, that of a man who had his arm amputated above the elbow and second, that of a young teenage boy who had his leg amputated below the knee.

In both cases, Colbatch’s powder proved ineffective. A disappointed Cowper prepared his report on the unsuccessful experiment and sent it to the Royal Society. Cowper’s report in the Phil. Trans. hid nothing. Colbatch’s supposedly mild styptic powder put both patients in “extravagant pains” and upon removing the styptic and bandages, the amputation site on both patients looked as if they had been cauterized. The observers were duly horrified; Colbatch’s styptic, its function finally witnessed, was deemed a failure while Colbatch’s claims were dismissed as lies.[3]

Colbatch was furious and decried Cowper’s assessment. Indeed, as he wrote later, the experiment’s outcome must have been fabricated by jealous detractors.[4]

L0064675 Titlepage: Novum lumen chirurgicum Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Titlepage: 'Novum lumen chirurgicum: OR, A New Light of Chirurgery' 1699 A collection of tracts, chirurgical and medical, viz. I. A new light of chirurgery; or a discovery of a more safe, and speedy way of curing wounds ... II. The new light of chirurgery vindicated ... III. A physico-medical essay concerning alkaly and acid ... IV. Further considerations concerning alkaly and acid ... V. A treatise of the gout ... VI. The doctrine of acids in the cure of diseases further asserted ... VII. A relation of a ... cure of a person bitten by a viper ... / John Colbatch Published: 1699. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0
Titlepage: Novum lumen chirurgicum
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

Writing in 1699, Colbatch claimed that he had visited the patients the day after the experiment was performed and found them both well and happy with the treatment. As he wrote, “before I was capable of speaking to him [the adult male patient], he rose up in his Bed, and prayed most heartily for me, telling me he believed no man, that ever had an Arm cut off, was so well as he.”[5]

And last, to prove that the powder really was caustic, W.W. had it tested by chymists only to discover that it consisted primarily of three inexpensive and easily obtained ingredients: Dantzic vitriol of copper (a sulfate), sugar of lead for added flavour, and a bit of dragon’s blood to dye it red.[6]

The Dantzic vitriol was likely copper sulfate, a green caustic powder consisting of copper and small amounts of iron that was beaten until it turned white.  Sugar of lead or lead acetate is a toxic water soluble compound that was historically used as a sweetener and later medically as an astringent.  Dragon’s blood, a plant-based resin, was used as a wound coagulant historically but may have been added to the recipe for aesthetic purposes.

Taken together, these ingredients could not have had the almost miraculous wound-healing effect described by its inventor. Rather, as W.W. concluded “the best Way of applying of it [the Vulnerary Powder] will easily appear to be to throw it into some nasty Puddle of Water; which by its Filth, is excused from the use of Man and Beast.”[7]

Colbatch had numerous surgeons and physicians against him.  Repeated experiments and publications questioned his medical theories and cures.  Indeed, W.W. went so far as to analyze and critique almost every cure Colbatch wrote about. Yet, none of this could ruin Colbatch’s reputation once and for all because the most important  people – the patients – were either not listening, not caring, or not believing. Despite being blacklisted by many a medical practitioner, the upstart apothecary from Worcestershire died Sir John Colbatch, a wealthy, knighted physician.

Bio: Samantha Sandassie is a historian of early modern medicine whose work focuses on surgery in seventeenth-century England.  She blogs over at Panacea and can be found on Twitter @medhistorian.

[1] John Colbatch, Novem Lumen Chirurgicum (London: printed for D. Brown, 1695), “To the Reader.”

[2] William Cowper, “An Account of some EXPERIMENTS lately made on Dogs,” Philosophical Transactions 18 (1694), 42.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Colbatch, Novum Lumen, “To the Reader.”

[5] Colbatch, A Collection of Tracts (London: printed for Dan. Brown, 1699), 70-71.

[6] Ibid., 61.

[7] Ibid., 63.

First Monday Library Chat: The Boots Archive

The Recipes Project heads to Notthingham, UK this month, to learn about the collections of Boots, UK Archive. We spoke with Sophie Clapp, Corporate Archivist, and Amy Gardener Archive and Record Assistant.

Could you give us an overview of the Boots Archive? What types of artefacts and documents does it contain? How was it put together?

Boots archive material was first collated by the business in the 1950s by the librarian in the research department. Based on the main Boots site in Nottingham, we welcomed our first professional archivist in 1995 and the team has grown over the years to three full time archivists.

The collection has been formed though a variety of methods, including acquisitions and deposits from within the business and from a few external sources. Since 2000, there has been a more systematic approach to growing the collection though tight links with the Records Management team. The museum collection was primarily formed through a large donation from a Boots employee.

The contents of the collection are varied and contain a mixture of business, social and medical items.

The archive consists mainly of the business records of the company and includes minutes, plans, ledgers, accounts and sales information made up of portfolios, photographs, architectural plans, advertisements and product samples. We also hold items relating to the Boot family and their employees through the years, including salary details, welfare and social activities, photographs and staff magazines.

From a medical point of view, the collection contains recipes, formulations and research documents for Boots products over the years, including early medical and herbal products, the development of ibuprofen, No7 cosmetics and skincare. Pharmaceutical journals, marketing and record books make up other items in the collection. As well as medicine and pharmacy, we have an optometry collection, formally the Dollond & Aitchison archive dating from c1750 onwards.

We also hold a wide variety of medical and surgical ephemera, dating from the late 1600’s to the present day.

Can you give us a few highlights from your collection? 

We have so many items in the collections which could be considered highlights depending on your area of interest. Every member of the team has different favourites.

CAIS 1214 (2)
Cosmetics, Boots UK

For me with my interest in cosmetics and beauty, the collection of items from the original 1935 No7 collection in their art deco style packaging are particular favourites along with a double ‘Punkt’ roller from the 1930’s which was marketed as an instant slimming aid.

CAIS 6361 (2)
Herbal Almanack for 1876. Boots UK

We have a beautiful collection of delftware apothecary jars dating from c.1680-1900, several lovely apothecary chests and a Herbal Almanac from 1876, which has an advert for Boots on the cover, which I am particularly fond of.

Which of your documents or artefacts would appeal most to the recipe-fans who read the Recipes Project? 

We have many items dating back to the early days of the business, and a selection of objects from further back in the history of medicine.

These include early copies of pharmacy journals, formulation books, dispensing notebooks and reference books dating from the early 1800’s to the present day, such as a Tincture Reference Book from 1898 and a Formula Book dated from 1898 -1919.

Within the museum collection we have a number of medicine chests, including an engraved late 17th Century Dutch casket, depicting William of Orange on the inside.

We also have pressed herbs and artefacts which held and were used to manufacture medicines, such as scales, pestles and mortars, pill rollers and suppository makers. We also have a collection of surgical instruments, pharmacy equipment, medical aids and display items such as carboys and species jars.

Historians of medicine and pharmacy are all familiar with academic libraries and archives, but perhaps less with those of private companies. Do you have any tips on how they can make the most of the resources you have? How can they discover what is in the Boots archive?

Presently, the best way to discover the collection is though one of our archivists. All someone needs to do is contact one of the team with details of their research and we will guide them on the relevant documents within the collection. We have a reading room which researchers can come to use the collection by appointment and an archivist is always on hand to assist with access and research.

At the moment, the primary user of the archive is the business, but we are always ready to welcome researchers and academics to the records centre. Currently researchers are looking into topics as varied as welfare, antiseptics and antibiotics and corporate identity.

As we are a corporate archive, there are some items in the collection which are closed for 30 years or longer due to Data Protection and some which are closed permanently due to corporate sensitivity, but aside from these, the team are very happy to advise on any relevant items.

The variation in items often means that a document that may not seem relevant to someone’s research may actually be of great use – we’re found that this works both ways; some documents we might think of as irrelevant to a particular researcher have turned out to be just what they are looking for!

We are in the early stages of a project funded by the Wellcome Trust which aims to make the archive more accessible. In future, we will have the entire catalogue searchable online which will transform the collection into an internationally available academic resource.

Finally, for those of us who living afar, could you tell us a little about we might be able to consult your rich holdings?

For people farther afield, again, the route into the collection will be through the archivists at the moment.

In the future we hope to have many items digitised and accessible online, including images, documents and artworks that are of regular interest. The team are happy to copy and digitise items of particular interest and send them on to anywhere in the world.

To contact the Boots Archive, please contact:

Sophie Clapp, Corporate Archivist

0115 959 4414