Documentary series recreating a 19th-century pharmacy. The team investigates how the discovery of germs made disinfectants a best-seller. Plus, Victorian electrotherapy.
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Blists Hill Victorian Town in Shropshire
revives the sights, sounds and smells of the 19th century.
At its heart stands the pharmacy - a treasure-house
of potions and remedies from a century and a half ago.
Now, in a unique experiment, historian Ruth Goodman, professor of pharmacy Nick Barber
and PhD student Tom Quick have opened the doors to the Victorian Pharmacy.
Recreating a high street institution we take for granted, but which was once a novel idea.
They're bringing the pharmacy to life, sourcing ingredients,
mixing potions and dispensing cures.
But in an age when skin creams contained arsenic and cold medicines were based on opium,
the team need to be highly selective.
They're only trying out safe versions of traditional remedies on carefully selected customers.
The start was like the Wild West. People didn't know what was good and bad.
Get a bit of speed up. There we go.
The pharmacy was something that affected everybody's lives in one way or another.
They're discovering an age of social change that brought healthcare
within the reach of ordinary people for the very first time.
Heralding a consumer revolution that reached far beyond medicine
to create the model for the modern high street chemist as we know it today.
By the mid-19th century,
the pharmacy was becoming more trusted by the Victorian public.
But the remedies they sold could do nothing to combat the most serious disease of the day -
cholera, a water-borne infection whose main symptom is violent diarrhoea.
Cholera was an appalling illness, because they were just shrinking and wizening
and dying from dehydration, ultimately.
With major cholera epidemics in 1849 and 1854 claiming the lives
of almost 100,000 Britons, the race was on to stop the spread of the disease.
But at first, they didn't even know about germs.
A fundamental breakthrough in medical science came in the 1860s when the existence of germs -
the invisible causes of disease - was established by scientists like Louis Pasteur.
A number of researchers, and particularly Pasteur, said this is actually tiny animicules,
tiny organisms which they could begin to see under microscope and which affected people.
Now that they understood that germs existed,
they could develop products to kill them.
In a consumer revolution, the public finally gained access to effective methods of preventing disease.
You begin to find for the first time that products are being advertised
as antiseptics, as disinfectants, things to kill these new-found dangerous germs,
things that might have been there anyway, for different reasons,
but now were being valued for their germ-killing properties.
The first chemical to be used as a disinfectant was carbolic acid,
previously used as a deodoriser to mask the smell of raw sewage.
Delighted with a new use for this previously undervalued chemical, enterprising pharmacists were quick
to create a vast new range of household cleaning products.
To make his own disinfectant, Nick's asked scientist Mike Bullivant, who is running the lab,
to help him extract some carbolic acid from its unlikely source, coal tar.
It's horrible stuff to work with. It's viscous, it's thick, it's black...it smells.
It's obnoxious. It was always regarded by the early Victorians as a waste product,
which was difficult to get rid of.
What I'm doing is heating the coal tar up.
The vapours will pass through here and they'll start to condense - this is an air condenser.
It condenses on the cold surface. You'll see droplets forming.
I'm interested in the components that come off between 170 and 230 degrees Celsius.
Anything else is just rubbish, because that's where the carbolic acid is.
-The magic of chemistry.
-The magic of chemistry, yeah!
Here we go! Can you see?
We've got one or two drops in here now.
Yep, there's liquid in the bottom.
-It won't be a clear liquid, because it's impure, but obviously we want as pure a product as possible.
It took the Victorians over 30 years of trial and error
to uncover the benefits of this mysterious substance.
First extracted from coal tar in 1834,
its germ-killing properties were finally realised in 1867.
One of the first people who sort of used this for health was Joseph Lister, the surgeon.
He'd reduced the death rate in operations by using this.
A patient lying on an operating table had a less chance of living than a soldier at Waterloo.
It's true! A 35% death rate from infection after surgery.
After amputation, two-thirds of them died by from an infection.
What Lister did was, he got carbolic acid and he made it into a paste and he also had a spray.
-He sprayed the theatre?
-He sprayed the wounds.
Everyone was working in this mist of carbolic acid, which, as you know, is really nasty stuff...
-..when it's concentrated.
But they would be spraying this into the wound in surgery, and the death rate dropped.
One in seven people died after he introduced this.
So, a big improvement from two out of three.
Come on! Come on!
Give us your carbolic acid.
Here it comes. Look at that! Look at that go.
-That's gorgeous, isn't it?
-This is all profit!
I think you've hit your upper limit there.
I think we'll call that a day.
-It's a matter now of letting it cool down...
..then we'll come back and we'll have a look a bit more closely at what's in here.
-Let's go for a bite to eat while that's doing.
-Yeah, it's safe enough.
The shop has a new customer who's in search of a cure.
Local council worker Maria Morris has a bad back.
It's mainly across the shoulder blades.
I've had physio in the past, but it hasn't really done a lot.
-It's muscle, yes.
Mainly between the shoulder blades.
Yeah. Well, I think in the Victorian period, there would have been several options available to you.
There would have been all sorts of creams you could have rubbed in,
but there was a brand-new treatment that you might be interested in.
-Have you got that electrotherapy machine?
-Yeah, just here.
-He's quite into this, so...
Big boys' toys, isn't it?
So, here we go.
This little contraption would be designed to give you an electric shock.
-Or, sorry, to electrify your muscles.
Invented in 1862, this precursor to the modern-day TENS machine was the height of technology.
Pharmacists either charged money to use the machine or offered it for free to draw people into the shop.
Does it actually work?
Well, there's plenty of evidence to show that it works in pain relief.
However, the main body of 19th-century use for it is not for pain relief at all.
So, not really for things like your back - more for conditions associated just with being female.
Oh, right! Yes!
Your womb would get out of control and cause you to go mad.
This is the idea of shocking you in some way to cure your hysteria...
Any sort of mental unhappiness or distress that a woman was suffering -
or that other people thought she was suffering - could be, therefore, cured by electrotherapy.
Although, there were a number of patients who were coming
-for the same problems that you're experiencing.
-Shall we give it a go, then?
-Are you all right there?
-OK. Here we go.
-Give me a shout if it gets too much or anything, all right?
Try a bit faster.
-Go on - as hard as possible.
Oh, no! Ah... It doesn't look like it's going to work, does it?
Shall I have a go?
I'll just do that.
As fast as you can.
I don't think...
-Oh, dear! Right, OK.
-We going to have to take this away to the workshop.
-Oh, that's a bit disappointing.
Haven't we got anything else electric?
The pharmacy has one of Dr Hoffmann's electric brushes,
which claimed to cure everything from skin disease to paralysis.
It's...got like a zinc plate on the back...
You'd soak that in acid, wouldn't you?
Yeah, and that's copper. So, it's sort of working like a battery.
How rough is that brush, though?
That is rough.
That is rough, isn't it?
It was important to Victorians to feel an effect in order to believe the remedy was working.
I mean I don't think you were supposed to do very much with that.
-Just gently... It's wire in order to carry the charge.
So, you'd be doing a tingly stimulation all over the surface of the skin. A body brush!
It's amazing, isn't it?
-It doesn't look like electrotherapy is going to work for us today for you!
-I'm really sorry.
We do, however, have a very good line in liniments.
-We've got some good ones, haven't we? I'll go and find some.
-Thank you very much.
In the lab, things are going more smoothly, and the distilled liquid
from the coal tar is one step away from becoming pure carbolic acid.
Once the temperature starts registering 180 to 183,
I know that's pure carbolic acid coming over.
The chances of two things being in there at that boil at the same temperature are slim,
so we assume it's carbolic acid.
Here it comes dropping through.
181, which is smack on the boiling temperature of carbolic acid.
It's nice and clear, isn't it?
Chemicals that killed germs became so popular that many
over-relied on them, neglecting the importance of basic cleanliness.
Lister the surgeon didn't believe in hygiene.
He believed that carbolic acid did it all.
He was filthy and he had a blue frock coat,
which he used to do dissections in of dead bodies and he would also to his surgery in the same coat.
There was another movement which believed that hygiene was the answer,
and they were just having clean, open wards and making everything washed and so on.
-Keeping the windows open.
-Yeah, and their death rate was much better than Lister's.
They got it down to 1 in 50 dying.
He ignored them for a long time until it was so clear
that their method was better and he said he'd thought about that all along.
It's a bit like what's happened recently in hospitals.
We've trusted chemicals so much, people had sort of forgotten about the importance of hygiene.
Nick will dilute the pure acid to turn it into a saleable cleaning product.
I am a happy bunny, because can you see that?
I think we'll leave it at that.
There is our carbolic acid. Beautiful!
In a boiling tube over there, there's some of the material we started out with earlier on.
-So, we've gone from that to that.
-Magical, isn't it?
An amazing difference, yeah!
I'm going to dilute it down, and then we can sell disinfectant as well.
This is going to be your best seller, mate!
Thanks very much.
Animals played an important part in 19th-century commerce.
Despite industrialisation, most local transportation was still horse-driven.
Many people still relied on livestock to make a living.
With the veterinary profession in its infancy,
animal health provided pharmacists with a lucrative sideline.
If your livelihood depended on your horse, as it did for the farmer, and your food supply depended
on the animals as well, then clearly you wanted them to be healthy.
Horseman Steve Leadsham has asked Nick if he can provide
something to soothe the aching muscles of his shirehorse, Casey.
Luckily for Nick, there was little distinction between animal and human medicines.
He can use the same chemicals and techniques as he would in making a human remedy.
The way they think about animals' bodies is the same as what happens to humans.
A horseman would demand something that was similar to a medicine he had applied on himself.
Nick's making a liquid embrocation, or muscle rub, that will be applied externally.
The white of egg and then oil of turpentine.
And then we've got acetic acid as well...
People were likely to have more confidence in a medicine if its effects were noticeable.
It's what's called a rubefaciant. It gives you a warming effect when you rub it in. And it feels good.
They worked to some extent. People would certainly have felt that they were working.
I think this is getting ready to pour.
Nick has an appointment to see the horseman later in the day.
That should be enough for one. And that's ready to rub on the horse.
With the public's confidence in pharmacists growing,
they began to expand their range beyond traditional products.
Inspiration came from their neighbours on the high street.
I think I could probably go in another inch and a half.
In the drapers shop, Ruth is helping her daughter Eve with a new corset,
a source of several marketing opportunities for a pharmacy.
For a start, they sold corsets - medical and health corsets, which were pretty much the same except
they had eyelet holes punched in them to let the air breathe.
-That was supposed to make all the difference.
You also get a range of creams and powders, special nipple shields and suction cups...
to help counteract the effects of a corset.
Most young, healthy women were looking to take their waists
down to something between 20 and 22 inches.
Slatterns, sluts, those with loose morals wore loose corsets.
Because it's pressing your ribs, your diaphragm can't move,
so all your breathing happens up here.
-Many people think that this led to enormous numbers of fainting incidents, and it can do.
So, one of the things that people would...
sell, use, carry as a result were smelling salts to sort of bring you round when you fainted.
I've got the ingredients here.
There we are.
Smelling salts are one of the easiest products to produce in a pharmacy.
Ooh, that's powerful stuff.
It's not about curing anybody - it's about profit.
I'll just need to sieve it.
This is THE ingredient, really.
This is all smelling salts are - ammonia.
Ammonia proper can, in fact, be produced by stale urine.
-This gives you some idea of the smell we're talking about here.
-Ooh, not nice.
Swooning was considered to be very feminine, and even if you didn't
faint every five minutes, the fact that you had your smelling salts and you might pull them out
and say things like, "Oh, I don't know. I feel a bit faint..."
Actually, you didn't at all, but it was all part of the paraphernalia.
Rather than filling up that whole bottle with liquid,
I'm basically going to fill it up with liquid-impregnated sponge.
So, yet again, a bit cheaper.
For quite a long period of time, policeman actually carried smelling salts,
so that they could deal with women who had fallen down in the street or fainted.
So, as part of your equipment... truncheon, whistle...smelling salts.
Most smelling salts had essential oils or something in them
to just make it all a bit nicer. This is oil of lavender.
Give it a really good shake.
Are you ready for your first whiff? Imagine yourself...
It's a hot day, somebody has overlaced your corset, and, besides which, your boyfriend is watching.
So, you've just faked a little swoon to look lovely...
and some kind person takes your beautifully, beautifully
presented scent bottle and waves it beneath your nose.
Yeah, that's the right effect. Oh, that's horrible!
It's like smelling a badly cleaned toilet.
However, somebody has sprayed some lavender all over it.
The link between wellbeing and the proper fitting of corsets
saw what had once been solely a fashion accessory become the preserve of the pharmacy.
As apprentice, it's Tom's job to disinfect the shop.
Well, Tom, these are pure crystals of carbolic acid.
Extremely corrosive, but in the right dilution, a really good disinfectant.
So, we're going to put some water in and dissolve the crystals...
It's a really powerful smell. You can feel your eyes running a bit already.
You can see it dissolving.
So, what we would be doing before we sold this was adding some more colourant, just to keep it safe
so people knew it was disinfectant and also it shows you it's not just water. You can't mistake it.
You don't want to try and quench your thirst with this stuff!
Absolutely. You'd be in hospital very rapidly if you did that.
This is still very strong, so we are going to dilute it down to a 3% solution.
We're just about ready to put it into something bigger, and then that's something
which you will be able to add to a bucket
and then you can get on with your chores as an apprentice.
So we're using it in the shop to show that we're cleaning the place?
That's right. Hygiene was one of the most important things to come out of this understanding of germ theory.
So, we need to be seen to be doing it as well as actually doing it.
Shall I go and get to work then, I suppose?
Absolutely. Earn your keep! Get on and do some work.
I imagine it would be a really unusual smell when it first came out.
By using this disinfectant, it's kind of a way of taking control of health in your own home.
You're fighting all these germs that the doctors keep talking about as a new cause of disease.
In some ways empowering, but, at the same time, it ties you into having to buy the disinfectant all the time.
So, it's great for our business.
You've got to spend your money to do it.
The apprentice would be a really important part of a chemist's and druggist's in the 19th century.
Not only are you doing all the dogsbody work,
but you're actually a source of income.
You wouldn't be paid by the pharmacist, your parents would pay for you to learn off them.
You'd join this place at 14.
So you're sort of looked after as a member of the family, in a way.
Of course, it's not a normal parent-son relationship
because, actually, you've got to work really hard for your living.
You know, it'd be a tough life.
Nick is keeping his appointment with horseman Steve Leadsham
to apply the muscle rub to his horse.
Vet John Broberg will check that Nick applies the embrocation correctly and should be able
to shed light on some other products Nick has brought from the pharmacy.
So, John I've brought a Universal Medicine Chest, which would have been brought to farms.
-It's animal medicines.
-General farm box.
In the absence of affordable vets, pharmacists sold these DIY medicine kits to horse and cattle owners.
They contained a vast range of medicines.
In Victorian times, there were all sorts of chemical mixtures - herbal mixtures, chemical mixtures.
It may be the wrong shape, but that's a horse ball
for the horse's general conditions.
Was it a bit of a cure-all, really?
-So, which end did they go in?
-These go in the front end.
-Thank goodness for that!
-If you have hands the size of mine, it can be more difficult, but I will show you.
-Will you demonstrate?
-I will show you what was done, yes.
-Show us how it was done.
I am quite happy with the table between me and this enormous animal.
He's a nice big chap, which means he has a nice big mouth, which suits me better.
Come on, fella.
You are a big chap, aren't you?
Oh, rather you than me.
Use the tongue as a gag.
Take the tongue to one side...
-Your hand goes up to the back of the mouth, pops the ball down, and that's it.
Not everybody would want to do that. How many vets have 10 fingers?!
Did you get danger money as a vet?
You probably adjusted your fee according to the beast.
Constitution Balls are still administered to horses today,
often with the safer balling gun method, similar to this Victorian model.
This, you just push it.
Basically, it's a tube with a stick in the middle.
I won't put it up him, but you can see that would reach to the back of his mouth.
-Pop it in!
-Amazingly trusting horse.
If I was that horse, I wouldn't let you near me again.
As with humans, there are two ends you can get medicine in.
-We've looked at the front end, and I gather there's an alternative.
-This is the other end, isn't it?
What would they insert into the backside of a horse?
A simple enema if you thought the horse was bunged up. That goes up the back end.
Shall I turn him round now, John?
I'm not going to bother, actually. I haven't got any stuff with me.
-Well, Steve, we've got some embrocation that was made earlier.
Let us get stuck, then.
This is a test of Nick's credibility.
He needs to impress if his new line of veterinary medicines is to succeed.
-Here we have some of the finest embrocation.
Where am I putting it on?
-Just around this shoulder area.
-This shoulder area.
-Let's have a go.
-A bit of a rub around.
It just goes straight into the hair, doesn't it?
Yep, then it will work its way through to the skin,
just to warm the skin, increase blood flow,
then warm the muscles underneath - again, increasing blood flow.
I suppose it's massaging the muscle as well, isn't it?
It all helps, yes.
Lovely! You're ready for work tomorrow.
Having finished his cleaning duties, Tom has returned to electrotherapy.
He's changed some parts around and uncovered the problem.
-How's it going?
-Finally got it working.
-What was wrong with it?
A really silly mistake.
-You know we attached them there?
-Well, it was the wrong one.
-We had to do it to that one.
-Do you want to try it?
-Yeah, go on.
Hang on. What do I do?
-Make sure you hold it tight.
-OK, go on.
Tell me if it's too...
-Hold it tight.
-I am. I am.
By the late 1860s, huge advances in the scientific grasp of illnesses enabled the pharmacy to come up
with products that didn't just claim to cure, but were actually proven to kill germs dead.
The pharmacy was progressing towards a more professional era.
Blind trust was being replaced by scientific certainty.
What's been amazing is the growth of scientific
knowledge during this period and how the chemists and druggists have picked it up and been applying it.
Start of the 1850s, some of them were borderlining on quackery, really.
They didn't know what they were doing, but the chemists
and druggists have taken their knowledge and been able to apply it
to their medicines and really begin to make things which are much more likely to work.
That feeling of giving a customer a product you really believed worked must have been great.
I imagine that many pharmacists must have felt a real boost of confidence, you know?
A slightly stronger position in the community, and that must have
helped them to expand out into a whole new range of products.
Next time on Victorian Pharmacy, as their trade diversifies and they attract some younger customers,
Ruth realises that some products are not as safe as they appear.
-This stuff, Mrs Winslow's Soothing Syrup.
-For a child under one month old. They've got opium in them.
Tom faces the dangers of making some Victorian matches.
-This is what happens when they get together.
Come on out of there, you.
Jelly and custard are added to their stock in trade.
Mmm, that's really nice.
-And Nick learns the fine art of pyrotechnics...
..ensuring everything goes off with a bang.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Documentary series recreating a 19th-century pharmacy. At a time when cholera was one of the biggest killers in Great Britain, Ruth, Nick and Tom realise how the discovery of germs made disinfectants a best-seller in the pharmacy. To make their own brand they'll need to extract carbolic acid from coal tar in the lab with help from scientist Mike Bullivant. Nick applies his skills to some horse medicine as Ruth and Tom venture into the uncertain world of Victorian electrotherapy.