Last week, while leafing through a 1890s medical book from the museum’s library, I found a small slip of paper between the pages. It was a prescription recipe for the pharmacy of H. Waterman in Ravenna, OH.
As I looked over the neat handwriting, I realized that the drug names were written in Latin and the measurements were given using the symbols of the apothecaries’ system. It occurred to me that this prescription might be very useful to illustrate the pharmaceutical measurement system in the upcoming Tools of the Trade exhibit. The weights in this system are broken down like this:
One pound = 12 ounces
One ounce = 8 drams
One dram = 3 scruples
One dram = 60 grains
So I set out to translate the Latin and measurements. It was so exciting to slowly figure out the ingredients and their effects. Here is the transcription and translation:
“Potassii Acetatis [Potassium acetate] 2 drams
Potassii Nitratis [Potassium nitrate] 1 dram
Spiritus Juniperis [Spirit of Juniper] 11 fluid ounces
Aqum mentha piperita [Peppermint water] 4 fluid ounces
A teaspoonful twice a day together with an occasional aperient at night.”
According to digitized pharmaceutical books from this time period on ChestofBooks.com’s health and healing section-
Potassium acetate and potassium nitrate were commonly used in low doses as diuretics.
Spirit of Juniper is very similar to gin and can contain as much as 35% alcohol. Notice that it is the main ingredient.
Peppermint water is a treatment of acute indigestion.
The physician is instructing the patient to take this prescription twice a day in addition to an occasional aperient (laxative) at night. In the research I’ve done for the pharmaceutical section of the Tools exhibit, it seems that prescriptions like this were common in the 1700s and 1800s. Physicians often prescribed medicine that would purge the body in some fashion. These medicines might have been combined with the practice of bloodletting, which was common in the United States until the mid-1800s.
Physicians and pharmacists continued to write prescriptions in Latin until the turn of the 20th century. I also found another prescription recipe in our collection from Kent, OH in 1914. The drug names are given in English and the amounts are shown using the apothecaries system symbols. “Lactopeptine” is a digestion aid. At the bottom, the physician has instructed the pharmacist to make four ounces and write a message on the bottle that one dram of the medicine is to be taken in water every three hours.
You can see a YouTube video about making medicine using a mortar and pestle here.