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Turkey rhubarb with a dash of laudanum, anyone? Medicine chest ‘time capsule’ that reveals the exotic potions used by doctors in 1817 goes on sale

Perfectly preserved mahogany box found at house in Derbyshire
Comes complete with 29 bottled concoctions
Includes Cream of Tartar and Sulfur

By Nick Enoch
PUBLISHED: 11:55 EST, 25 June 2012

It contains a collection of healing potions and cure-alls unlikely to be prescribed by any GP today.

But a perfectly preserved medicine chest dating back to the reign of George III is expected to fetch more than £3,000 when it sells at auction later this week.
The mahogany box, described as a ‘medicinal time capsule’, comes complete with 29 exotically named bottled concoctions that would have been used by doctors to treat ailments such as gout, depression and indigestion.

However, the likes of Laudanum – described in an accompanying handbook as ‘as one of the most valuable medicines afflicted with mankind’ – are now strictly controlled.

This is not that surprising as Laudanum, an alcoholic herb preparation, contains opium.

A spoonful of sugar with that? Inside the disgusting field…

Other remedies popular in 1817, when the chest was made up, such as Turkey rhubarb (a plant thought to have healing properties), and cream of tartar (a byproduct of winemaking that was used as a laxative), have long since been replaced by more modern medicines.

The set, found at a house in Derbyshire, also contains scales and mixing bowls

The mahogany box, described as a ‘medicinal time capsule’, comes complete with 29 exotically named bottled concoctions that would have been used by doctors to treat ailments such as gout, depression and indigestion

Other remedies popular in 1817, such as Turkey rhubarb, a plant thought to have healing properties, and cream of tartar, a byproduct of winemaking that was used as a laxative, have long since been replaced by modern medicines.

The chest was discovered in a house in Derbyshire.

Auctioneer Charles Hanson, who will oversee its sale in Derby on Saturday, said it may have been used out of hours by a doctor on call, or owned by the family of a large country house to carry with them on a long journey by horse and carriage.

Mr Hanson, who has appeared on BBC1’s Bargain Hunt, added: ‘It would appear the chest, which dates back to the early 19th century, has been untouched for almost 200 years.

‘It is wonderfully complete. It even has its original companion instruction book on how to apply the medicinal potions in the glass bottles, and what they may cure.

‘I suspect the box was only used once or twice to administer medicines and has then been hidden away in an old country attic or cellar for almost two centuries.’

As well as the bottled medicines, the chest also contains a complete set of utensils including scales, mixing bowls and a scalpel.

Mr Hanson said: ‘The bottles are a variety of colour, with liquid and solid contents from the Georgian period still visible.

‘It is a medicine chest far removed from today’s practising doctors.’

It adds that the medicines ‘are of the best quality and are selected for their efficacy. The doses are in general smaller than professional men might deem necessary’.

The booklets also contains a description of each remedy, and what it should be used for.

The chest was made up a year before the first successful blood transfusion, and 30 years before the first painless surgery with general anaesthetic

It states that ‘Turkey rhubarb is an admirable medicine for disorder of the bowel. The dose is ten to thirty grains mixed with peppermint water.’

And a teaspoonful of ‘spirit of lavender’ is ‘useful for cases of depression, sickness and languor’.

The chest was made up a year before the first successful blood transfusion, and 30 years before the first painless surgery with general anaesthetic.

It wasn’t until 1870, 53 years later, that Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch established that germs – and not miasma, or ‘bad air’ – caused diseases, leading to important innovations such as antibiotics and hygiene practices.

‘I hope it is purchased by a doctor or medical professional who can appreciate how far we have come in the last 195 years!’

The chest will be sold at Hansons Auctioneers in a fine art sale at their showroom in Etwall, Derby.

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HISTORICAL CURE-ALLS?

Here are just some of the ‘miracle potions’ found in the medicine chest…

Manna: A sweet substance obtained from various plants, especially from an ash tree, Fraxinus ornus (‘manna’ or ‘flowering ash’) was used as a mild laxative.
Steers’s Opodeldoc: This liniment was made from soap, spirit of wine, camphor, rosemary oil and sometimes spirit of ammonia.

Peppermint water: Used to treat ailments such as diarrhoea, flatulence and vomiting.
Lavender, used in medicine
Laudanum: Alcoholic herb preparation containing opium, which ‘seldom fails to occasion a calmness in the system whence its use in gout and spasmodic disorders’.
Lavender: Herb (right) used for digestive ailments – and ‘useful for cases of depression, sickness and languor’.
Epsom salts: Used as a mild laxative and anti-inflammatory agent.
Cream of tartar: Byproduct of winemaking used as a laxative.
Best double-distilled cardamon: An aromatic spice used for digestive relief.


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