Danger in the Dispensary
The horrible and hazardous side to the chemist shop
Amongst the wide variety of ingredients used by pharmacists some were extremely dangerous. Until the mid nineteenth century the sale of these was surprisingly unregulated. Those commonly used in medicines included morphine and cocaine, both of which were thought to be safe enough to be sold over the counter. These would be added to remedies prepared by the pharmacist as well as freely available in many patent medicines of the day, such as "Godfrey's Cordial" for babies which contained opium as its key ingredient.
As more and more cases of poisoning, (deliberate and accidental) came to light, concern grew around the availability of the substances. Arsenic was the biggest killer and as a result the Arsenic Act of 1851 was introduced. Gradually, stricter rules regarding the sale of poisons began to be enforced and other regulatory acts were issued.
Proof of this can be seen behind the counter of Castelow's Chemist shop which is now reconstructed in Hull's Streetlife Museum. Hanging up is a copy of the Dangerous Drugs Act (1920-23) which gives a summary of regulations regarding the sale of poisons. Even with these new restrictions however, they were still available over the counter. Today we know that substances such as these can be very dangerous and so are now completely banned or strictly prescription only.
These medicines were easy to spot. The colour of a bottle often indicated what it contained. If they were dangerous then bottles were usually blue or green. It was not only the colour of the bottle that could warn people to be careful. For example, in the nineteenth century all sorts of methods were experimented with such as adding a raised image of skull and crossbones to the bottle or attaching sandpaper, bells, and even spikes!
The technique that became most common however was to use bottles with horizontal or vertical grooves such as this example from behind Castelow's counter. Ingredients were not the only things to be found in the chemist's storage jars, those containing leeches were not an unusual sight. Doctors purchased them in the belief that many illnesses were caused by the patient having too much of the wrong type of blood and that if leeches were applied to the skin they could suck out toxins. This procedure began more than 2500 years ago and was only discontinued in the 1960s and has even had comebacks since then!
Doctors were not the only ones who carried out gory procedures on patients. Nineteenth century chemists would carry out tooth extraction on their premises using gruesome implements called 'tooth keys.' These would be used, as the name suggests, by grasping the problem tooth and turning it like a key!
Castelow took over the chemist shop in 1907 but it, like him, remained Victorian in appearance. His practices were equally as traditional and who knows, there may have been a leech or someone's extracted tooth lurking behind the counter at one time!