Apothecary Box

apothecary boxEighteenth-century physicians carried their medicines in these beautiful boxes. This one is made of mahogany and would very probably have been taken on campaign because it has brass carrying handles. There are double opening doors that lock as well as a secret compartment. When the cabinet was open, it gave access to a clasp on the front right hand side. When this was pulled out, a compartment at the back slid out. It was used for storing poisons.

As well as the bottles, the cabinet contained a pestle and mortar, a set of scales made of brass with iron weights, a metal funnel and a measuring tube. The drawer handles were made of ivory.

Elizabeth Alkin


The Battle of Scheveningen, 1653 by Jan Abrahamsz Beerstraaten

This was the final battle in the First Anglo-Dutch War, a conflict that resulted in another first – the establishment of casualty reception stations. Throughout history, war has driven advances in medicine and surgery but it also brought dramatic changes to the status and condition of women. As early as the middle of the seventeenth century, Elizabeth Alkin was working with Dr Daniel Whistler to establish reception station for the injured returning from the war with the Dutch. These reception stations were based in Portsmouth and East Anglia and were the forerunners of the flying hospitals that the First Duke of Marlborough, John Churchill, set up in Europe during the War of Spanish Succession.

Unfortunately, the status of women in 1653 was not high enough to provide a surviving image of Elizabeth Alkin, only one of the physician, Dr Daniel Whistler.

(c) Royal College of Physicians, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
(c) Royal College of Physicians, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Death of Charles II

charles_IIWhen Charles II of England lay dying from a convulsion which attacked him while shaving, the medicos of that day left no stone unturned in helping him along to the Great Beyond. First, he was bled of a pint of blood. Then his shoulder was cut and eight ounces more of blood was extracted by cupping.

Then followed an emetic, a purgative and another purgative. Next, an enema in which they used antimony, sacred bitters, rock salt, mallow leaves, violet, beet root, camomile flowers, fennel seed, linseed, cinnamon, cardamom seed, saffron, cochineal and aloes. This enema was repeated. In two hours, another purgative was given.

Death of Charles II. At the age of fifty-five, Charles suffered an apoplectic fit while shaving. He died four days later but may well have survived without the medical intervention of the day.

The King’s scalp was then shaved, and a blister raised on it. They gave him next sneezing powder of hellebore root; they sought to strengthen his brain by giving him powder of cowslip flowers. Purgatives were frequently repeated. He was given drinks of barley water, licorice, sweet almonds, white wine, absinthe, anise seed, extracts of thistles, rue, mint and angelica. When these did not cure him, they gave him a poultice of burgundy pitch and pigeon dung, to be applied to his feet. More bleeding, more purging; they added melon seeds, manna, slippery elm, black cherry water, extracts of flower of lime, lily of the valley, peony, lavender and dissolved pearls. When these did not do the trick, they went at it with gentian root, nutmeg, quinine and cloves. When this failed, he was given forty drops of extract of human skull. Then they forced down his throat a rallying dose of herbs and animal extracts. Then some powdered bezoar stone.

Alas, after an ill fated night His Serene Majesty was so exhausted that all the physicians became despondent. And so, more active cordials, and finally pearl julep [a heart tonic] and ammonia, were forced down the royal patient’s throat. Then he died.

(From a description by Sir Charles Scarburgh)