Sunday, 4 February 2018

Royal Pharmaceutical Society Museum

66 East Smithfield
London E1 W 1AW
Thursday February 1 2018

Google maps had advised a brisk 17 minute walk from Shadwell Station but having forgotten my phone, which included all the details of today’s planned visit, I turned the wrong way down Cable Street walking its entire length – this was quite peaceful as little traffic and much of the road given over to a bike lane but also markedly lacking in shops and cafes which are vital if you want to ask your way. Even the maps on the bus stops did not help much. When I got to the end I turned back and found myself on the hideous red route of the Highway where I was the only pedestrian, but at least one of the riverside blocks had a map and by now with building sites all round I found my destination – late again but fortunately Jo had somewhere really pleasant to wait…

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society Museum, part of the professional association from the start, was established in 1841, moved here from Lambeth some 2½ years ago into a purpose-designed and ‘high spec’ building. The generous reception area morphs into the Museum collection. We liked very much that they had displayed their best apothecary bottles and pestles and mortars in the windows alongside the sloped access along the side of the building, which was so well insulated we did not notice either the sound of the dreadful road outside or the very cold weather.

The mainly blue and white jars are Delft' type; the Assyrians were the first to make tin-glazed ware and this spread through the Middle East and then via the Moors to Spain and on to Holland. Many of the containers made expressly for the Apothecary trade came from Norwich where some Dutch (religious) refugees had set up a pottery. 

But back to the pharmacists – if Hippocrates is seen as the founding father of medicine then Avicenna and Galen are also owed much by the pharmacists. Knowledge passed through the Middle Ages and the Middle East and many early practitioners were based in monasteries where there was access to herbal supplies; it has to be said that my knowledge of this comes purely from historical detective fictions where our medieval (Cadfael/Name of the Rose) or Tudor (Shardlake) detectives use the knowledge of friendly and learned monks to solve their crimes and pursue their villains.

In 1841 a group of dispensers/druggists/apothecaries got together and decided the profession needed some regulation, recognition and research so founded the Society, reminding us how good the Victorians were at trying to improve and standardise in an age where rapid industrialisation was taking place. We were pleased to see that, unlike many professional associations, the walls were NOT hung with the portraits of the great and the good  (as I am sure the previous premises had been) but reproductions are to hand in one of the many laminate folders provided. The only portraits still on show are those of an early female president and  Jacob Bell, one of the pioneer founders of the Society. Interestingly, when I was growing up their pharmacy in Marylebone was known to be the only one open on a 24 hour basis and you had to head there if something was needed out of hours…

But far more of the many vitrines are devoted to historical aspects of the pharmaceutical business over the years; the display cabinets are full of fascinating items with the cribs available on different sheets and with the constant juggling I find my notes to be very scarce so the descriptions will be sketchy.

There was much paraphernalia displayed which was needed for the hand manufacture of tinctures, pills and potions which needed to be weighed (hence the scales), distilled with water (samovars used as filters), mixed with other compounds and then moulded into pills – think of making cupcakes but on a tiny scale. The ‘raw ingredients’ were always kept VERY WELL LABELLED and poisons were prominent by their green ribbed bottles. There was an informative key to as to what effects each poison might have (arsenic, strychnine, ricin, nicotine, alcohol, laudanum, belladonna) what they might have been used for and how they are still sometimes used today. All use was carefully controlled and logged (The Poisons Book) and did nothing so much as recall all those old-fashioned thrillers where the protagonists buy poison ‘for the rats’.     

As advances are made in medical research so then the corresponding treatments evolve. The cabinets display early examples of penicillin and how it has evolved into multiple anti-biotics, early syringes for diabetes, and the bones, spices and herbs the original monks ground up. Nicholas Culpepper was very radical for his times treating patients for free and venting his anger about the government in control.

At one point Jo said the displays reminded her of  nothing so much as our visit to Robert Opie’s Museum of Brands and PackagingIn many ways I can see the parallels – advertising and branding is all about persuasion and a component of medication is the placebo effect: if the packaging of the pills is suitably persuasive we will almost certainly feel better. Obviously modern medicine is more sophisticated than the Victorian ‘quacks’ peddling bears’ grease as a cure for baldness. I doubt very much the grease was much more than that of the local farmyard animals but isn’t the packaging wonderful?

Also who would have thought that Hiram Maxim (he of the machine gun) had also patented an inhaler?

The most gruesome display (some dispute as to whether we should show this photo so perhaps this blog should come with a health warning?) was the head of a man used to demonstrate some 15 or so skin ailments ranging from acne to herpes, syphilis, impetigo, conjunctivitis and early and advanced skin cancer…

We did find this display fascinating and informative. In any case we have great respect for pharmacists who continue to do sterling work in our local chemists and hospitals, having always to remain vigilant, precise and careful in what they dispense. It is rare nowadays that they have to manufacture their own potions but they need to know dosages and what can and cannot be taken together, and it is fitting that their professional society has a wonderful modern headquarters but still retains many examples of past practice.  .  

Small samovars used to distill water 

Maxim's Inhaler

1944 Penecillin 

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