About a week ago I was in Gulgong, a small town in New South Wales near the wine region of Mudgee. The main road was spelled Mayne Road, and was brown stone rather than tarmac. Along the footpaths were old stone troughs for watering horses. Key landmarks included the Ten Dollar Motel and the Gulgong Butchers Cafe. It was an old gold mining town which had lost its gold but kept its rural charm.
Wandering the streets I came across a collectibles shop filled with coloured glass jugs and gold rimmed plates. Amongst the copper kettles I found these old bottles from an apothecary, dated around the 1800’s I believe.
The craftsmanship is stunning, and they teased my imagination. What were these drugs used for? What did they look like, when those bottles were filled, and who was the chemist who filled them?
I have since looked into some of the medicines written on the bottles.
Iodoformum is now called tri-iodomethane (CHI3). The crystals are lemon yellow and have a disagreeable odour and taste. I think it was used to treat tuberculosis, and is still used in homeopathy for a range of ailments. Hexamine may have been mixed with hippuric acid to make methenamine hippurate, which was used to treat lower urinary tract infections. Salol was a white powder derived from salicylic acid, the active ingredient in willow bark, which we take as acetylsalicylic acid in asprin. It was used to reduce pain and fever. Menthol you probably recognise from chest rubs. It comes from mint oil, though it can be made synthetically. As well as clearing sinuses it can ease sore throats and muscle pains, and is one of the ingredients in tiger balm.
While researching I found an issue of the British Medical Journal from September 5, 1885 which is an interesting read.