Documentary series recreating a 19th-century pharmacy. In 1868 pharmacies were regulated by law for the first time. The team face the tough examinations needed to become qualified.
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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.
Try and 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.
The team are about to face their biggest challenge yet -
adapting to new laws which regulated their trade for the very first time.
Four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven...
In the first half of Queen Victoria's reign,
no professional qualifications were required to run a pharmacy.
Actually, it was the most dangerous shop in a town or village, absolutely, by far,
because of the range of materials which were in there.
Realising the dangers, a few select pharmacists set up the Pharmaceutical Society,
as a pressure group calling for regulation of the trade.
Look at this - rat poison, in a chemists!
"Contains the most powerful arsenic poison!"
I hate to think what's on this fly paper.
Oh, probably arsenic.
The most immediate impact the Society had was in raising awareness amongst pharmacists themselves.
They needed to be more responsible and safety conscious about the hazards on their shelves.
We have poison in the window.
We'd better take that out.
Oh, look at this - double cyanide gauze.
There's so many things that are dodgy.
And all these powders in all the drawers, as well.
There's so many different things that might explode at any moment.
What I find most disturbing though is all these things aimed at babies and children, you know?
All these poisons and opiates - particularly the opiates.
-By the end of the period we're looking at we've got heroin coming along.
That was supposed to be an improvement on morphine because
-it's just a chemical manipulation of morphine to make heroin.
-That's sort of our stock in trade.
You come to a pharmacist because they've got the weird, wonderful, strange, odd, the hard to get...
-Yeah, and they're powerful.
-Everything. Completely unregulated.
Anyone could sell these things, really.
-I think some legislation is long overdue in this area.
Experimentation with new synthesised chemicals often provided problems as well as solutions.
New toxic products were in high demand, thanks to their powerful cleaning properties.
Many of the stain removal products, extremely dangerous things.
Things like oxalic acid, borasic acid, sulphuric acid
were all recommended in household manuals as methods
of dealing with dirt.
Metals like antimony and lead were used in manufacturing,
while mercury was used in the making of felt hats, turning people "mad as a hatter."
Arsenic, a cheap by-product from the mining industry, was the most common poison.
Crop sprays, candles, skin creams and rat poisons all contained arsenic,
and it provided the most effective way to colour a product green.
Green wallpaper - such a fashionable colour for wallpaper -
Paris Green, made of arsenic. The dyes in peoples' dresses could be poisonous,
so you could be absorbing arsenic through your skin
as you were wearing your best dress, in its lovely fashionable greenness.
Deaths from accidental arsenic poisoning were so common that an Arsenic Act was introduced in 1851,
allowing only a select few to sell the poison.
Among them were pharmacists,
but there was still no law requiring them to be qualified.
Nick is exploring the few measures that were in place in the pharmacy to prevent accidental poisonings.
He's joined by Ian Burney, senior lecturer in the history of medicine at Manchester University.
You can see a couple out here.
These are ribbed bottles, aren't they?
Why is the bottle ridged?
As you see, there are so many bottles here.
One of the ways in which a pharmacist, in reaching for a bottle,
might be able to know, just by touch, whether it's poison or not is to make them distinctly ribbed.
The place to go for an antidote was the pharmacy.
-Poisonings must have been an issue in those cases?
There are two categories of poisoning.
One is accidental poisoning, of which there were many more.
The things that captured headlines, the newspaper-reading public,
were cases of criminal poisoning.
Over the course of the 19th century there were roughly 500 poisoning cases that were tried.
Arsenic was used in 45% of criminal poisonings in the 19th century.
Often purchased from the pharmacy as fly papers or rat poison.
Among the more disturbing cases were those of infanticide
by parents reaping the benefits of insurance policies known as "burial clubs".
There are a number of cases, especially in the 1840s,
in which a working class mother
is charged with having signed her infants up,
not to just one burial club, but two, three, four -
this is again, like poisons, unregulated, or under regulated -
then delivering the child
unto death, with arsenic in particular, right?
-So, killing them?
-And then killing them.
Then claiming the money, right?
And, um, you can make a tidy sum on this.
New laws like the Arsenic Act had only a limited effect in reducing the number of poisoning cases.
The Pharmaceutical Society continued to pressure the government for stronger legislation.
They achieved success in 1868 with the Pharmacy Act,
when the government handed them control of the profession and made qualifications compulsory.
The Pharmacy Act was symptomatic of what was happening in late Victorian times.
They were obsessed with measurements, standardisation and regulations.
So we have lots of other acts, as well.
We have the Gauge Act in 1845, which set the standard gauge for railways,
how far apart the rails are.
And then the Football Association was created in 1863,
to set the rules for the game, because there was chaos on the pitch sometimes.
People from one town would play another town and they would be working to different sets of rules.
And the pharmacists and others must have felt really beset by this.
In many ways, their freedoms were being taken away.
In some ways, things don't change that much. I'm one of the officers
of the Council of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, who regulates pharmacists today,
and we're still constantly in this debate.
What's the best way to regulate? What's the limits you put on it
so that you ensure safety, so that you improve quality?
But also that you don't stifle freedom and stifle innovation.
When the regulations were introduced,
unqualified pharmacists were made to take exams in order to keep trading.
The team are meeting Briony Hudson, curator of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Museum,
to find out more about the exams.
So how would they actually have gone about examining people?
What would they have done in the exam?
A written paper on chemistry and physics,
practical stuff on dispensing.
-You'd have to answer quite academic questions about the make up of plants
and the technical terms, but you'd also have to identify substances.
A whole range of techniques that they're using to examine people.
And also, you have to do a Latin paper.
So I wonder whether you'd like to have a bit of a go?
Just do an element of the exam, just to see...
I hope you don't expect too much of us.
-I don't think we're going to...
-I think we should.
What I'd like to do is use the Materia Medica chest, which the pharmacy students
would've learnt from, and get you to try and identify some of these unlabelled specimens.
And just to test your practical skills, I'd like you to go away and make some suppositories...
-..then we can judge how good your practical skills are.
Administered through the rectum, suppositories were popular with Victorians
and favoured by examiners.
A well-made suppository was easy to distinguish from one that was badly made.
Of the three of them, Ruth feels she has the most to prove.
I'd always assumed that this sort of, you know, the exams and the
registering, only really applied to men. Only men were allowed to do it.
And the Act just forgot to mention that women weren't allowed to do it.
So, by default, they could.
Yes, absolutely! And a lot of these women were coming out top and winning prizes.
The arrival of an official examination heralded a new era in the Victorian pharmacy.
Gone was the old name, "chemist and druggist", with its druggist origins in herbalism.
From now on, they would be referred to as "pharmaceutical chemists",
embracing the new science of chemistry.
But to pass the exam, they needed a thorough knowledge of both disciplines.
As Ruth is the only one with no pharmaceutical qualifications,
she'll use the help of both herbalist Eleanor Gallia and scientist Mike Bullivant,
to give her a chance of succeeding in the exam.
Come on, then!
They'll have to identify any one of the hundreds of chemicals or herbs a pharmacy stocked on its shelves...
..as well as completing their practical experiment - making genuine Victorian suppositories.
Women first qualified as pharmacists in 1868.
Inspired by this, Ruth is developing some new products, to sell in the pharmacy.
You're making up my zinc oxide for me, Mike?
I'm just about to start.
Scientist Mike Bullivant, who runs the lab, will help her to extract
zinc oxide from zinc metal, for a new line of skin creams.
She already has a customer lined up who suffers from acne,
and has medical approval to test out the cream.
-Oh, I remember that stuff from school!
-It starts fizzing.
Zinc oxide is one of many chemicals that were new to the pharmacist,
expanding their scope for commercial gain.
It's an antibacterial agent still used on the skin today in sun creams and make-up.
Now, be careful about that, because it's hot acid.
It's an interesting compound. Such a simple compound.
-Simple to make.
-I just keep heating it like that, and stirring it, until all the zinc's disappeared,
and then what's left is zinc sulphate.
Making skin cream from zinc is a process that requires three chemical stages.
Each of those stages, in turn, produces a useful by-product.
One of them is calamine, used for treating chicken pox and measles.
Another is a sulphate used to make eye lotion.
That white solid is zinc sulphate.
So that's the next bit?
-Can I do water? Am I allowed water?
-Yeah, go on, then! Tip the lot in.
Tip the lot in, OK.
All right, now,
to help that dissolve, that zinc sulphate dissolve in that water, you transfer it...
-Back on the heat.
-Do you want to do that?
-I can put things on the heat.
-Taking my job!
I know. Well, this bit's only like cooking. I can do that.
It is. Chemistry is like cooking, it really is.
The calamine will be created by the next chemical transformation,
which requires Ruth to apply a series of basic chemistry skills.
See the unreacted zinc at the bottom?
-Yeah, I can see all the little bits.
I'm glad to say, it's not actually hard to do physically, is it?
-Oh, I remember pipettes, this is another thing I vaguely remember from my school days.
Just add it, drop-wise.
Yep. Just a drop?
Yeah, I did see that. And I just keep dropping until...?
The bicarbonate has neutralised the remaining acid.
-OK, so until it stops fizzing, when it drops in?
Bicarbonate of soda, or baking powder, reacts with the zinc sulphate
to create the calamine, which chemists know as zinc carbonate.
We'll get to a point when the bicarb has neutralised all the acid.
Then it will start reacting with the zinc sulphate.
Once it's filtered, the final stage will be to heat the calamine,
and that will give Ruth the zinc oxide she needs to make her skin cream.
So, the stuff we want is going to get left in the filter paper?
That's right. And the liquid that passes through is...
-Is the discard?
-What we don't want.
-That's largely water.
The particles tend to clog up the filter paper a little bit.
With a little time on his hands, Tom is taking the opportunity to brush up on his botany before the exam.
Pharmacists needed to identify all of the plants used in medicine.
It's kind of really basic knowledge that I have to know what's going to hurt people
and what effects all these different plants are going to have.
And how to tell them apart in the first place!
As fresh plants were used more widely then,
a Victorian pharmacist needed a more in-depth botanical knowledge than his modern-day counterpart.
I probably shouldn't have just touched that.
As far as I understand it, it's foxglove, or Digitalis, which is poisonous.
Botany formed only one of six parts of the pharmacists' exam.
Extensive knowledge was also required of all the animal and chemical products used in medicines.
For the practical part of the exam, Briony has set each of the team a challenge - to make suppositories.
So, these bigger suppositories...
Nick is the first to attempt the task.
Cocoa butter, beeswax, liquorice, olive oil, and hopefully a book which tells me what to do.
For reference, he turns to the Art Of Dispensing, an instruction manual
used by pharmaceutical chemists in the late 1800s.
Oh, lovely. Everything's in grains,
which I can't remember how many grains there are in an ounce.
The first thing Nick has to do is get the right proportions of cocoa butter and beeswax.
Together, these form the basic compound for the suppository.
What I'm trying to find is something to give me some sense of the quantities.
Think I should just sign my letter of resignation now, actually.
I think the chances of making this work are looking slim.
"Method: weigh the base, using at least 16 grains for a 15-grain suppository."
There we are. Bigger than that.
So, if we put a 1,000 of cocoa butter in the pan.
Maybe 20% of that for beeswax.
That's a bit too much.
Last time I made a suppository was probably about 1973.
Nick adds the liquorice powder to the mix.
This is the active ingredient, or the laxative part of the suppository.
We're talking bucket chemistry here.
There would be no agreement in Victorian times as to the right concentration.
Probably one pharmacy would have one formulation, another pharmacy would have another.
There are pharmacists who specialise in these physical skills.
It's not my area of specialisation.
But I still have that sense of pride about wanting to be able to make
a good product, or a reasonable product, at any rate.
What a way to end your career.
The moment is nigh.
There we have some. One, two...
-Nick's previous experience has paid off.
-Do you want to come and have a look at the fruits of our labour?
-We're done, are we?
Look at that.
Back in the lab, all the zinc carbonate has been extracted,
and Mike is now showing Ruth the next stage in the process of getting the zinc oxide.
The zinc carbonate has to be dried, so it forms into a powder...
I'm just transferring it to a boiling tube.
..before being heated over a Bunsen burner.
-Be cruel to that!
-Be cruel to that. OK.
All we're doing with this zinc carbonate, this calamine,
is to drive off the carbon dioxide.
And that leaves us with the zinc oxide.
The brilliant white powder will turn yellow.
Zinc oxide, when it's hot, turns yellow.
I suppose if you're a working pharmacist, if you've got notes on how to do these processes,
-that's it, that's your stock in trade, isn't it?
-Definitely going yellow.
-It is. No doubt.
-Give it a shake.
-I think we're ready.
-Looks pretty yellow to me.
Just tip it out onto that.
-Look at that.
-Yay, look at that!
-And to think that we've produced it from...
From that to that in a series of remarkably simple procedures.
Yes! Right, come on then, let's go and make this cream.
It will go white as it cools down.
I'm pleased with that, thank you.
Oh, it grinds down really quick, doesn't it? That's ever so easy.
Ruth grinds the zinc oxide down to a fine powder...
I've got rose and lemon and bergamot.
..and then adds a herbal infusion
of essential oils, glycerine, and a red dye.
And look at the colour. Just look at the colour!
You can see I hardly need any.
Ruth will be trying it on a customer who's looking for an acne cure.
Hello, Bridie. Thank you so much for coming in.
Bridie Lloyd has suffered from acne for five years.
I've got this lovely zinc ointment here. You need the tiniest bit.
I think you should have a go. Just on your cheek, yeah? It's looking very, very purple.
-I don't think you want to stay looking purple, do you?
That's something you ought to rub in.
You see, that has given you quite a bit of colour, oddly.
-And this side looks both paler and pinker...
..which I suppose is what they would have been looking for.
The paler the complexion the better, but they did like colour in the cheeks,
so you get these stories of Victorian ladies that would pinch
their cheeks before somebody comes, to try to get a bit of colour.
A young man coming in the door, "I'll quickly pinch my cheeks,"
make yourself look a little bit more red, natural and glowing.
How do you feel about taking it away with you and using it for a few days?
Yeah, as long as I really don't look purple!
Thank you ever so much.
It's the day of the examination.
That's obviously olive oil.
Ruth and Tom still have the practical part of the exam to do - making suppositories.
Unlike Nick, a professor of pharmacy, neither of them have ever done anything like this before.
Put it on the weights...
They're both using the same equipment as Nick, including a set of scales with weights.
I don't have any weights here, so I can't exactly work out proportions.
Tom makes a bad start, failing to find his weights.
I'm kind of guessing that if I chuck all this together,
then we'll eventually get something I can bind with this stuff.
I'm sure I've done something drastically wrong.
With too much beeswax, Tom will have trouble melting his mixture.
Just how much oil should I put in?
Ruth shouldn't be adding the olive oil to the mix.
It's supposed to be used to lubricate the mould.
Damn stuff won't melt.
There's bound to be all sorts of stuff in there.
Tom's finally discovered his weights.
That is kind of the basic sort of knowledge that everybody would assume you to know.
Messed it up.
Ensuring the right medicinal content of the suppositories is only half the job.
I'm a terrible one for improvising.
I'm kind of working from a complete and utter position of ignorance.
The other crucial thing is making sure they're the right shape.
All we can do now is hope.
It's the moment of absolute, horrific truth.
Well, shame me fingers were dirty.
Half a suppository.
It's back to the school house and time for Briony Hudson
to judge their suppositories, for shape, size and firmness.
So, test one, suppositories.
That's a nice one!
-Can I just direct you to the nice ones?
-What about this one?
That one's poorly.
But you have got one, two, three
four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve...
And yes, not badly formed. OK.
Mine come in a multitude of forms!
Oh, they do!
-They're not bad, are they?
-Which one's that? That's my good one.
That's the one you've identified, is it, as the best one?!
Yeah, that one's less successful, we might say. And next, Tom?
Um, yes. Not that successful, I don't think.
I managed to get one and a half.
-Interesting colour difference, considering the idea is to spread them...
-They were bespoke!
Oh, OK! So this is for a person that's more sick?
I know he's had some practice, but Nick's do win.
More produced, and a higher quality.
So very well done, Nick.
With plant and chemical substances to identify,
Ruth is joined for the next test by herbalist, Eleanor Gallia, and scientist, Mike Bullivant.
Having stronger medical backgrounds, Tom and Nick are taking up the challenge on their own.
So I've selected a drawer from the Materia Medica teaching cabinet,
and I'm going to ask each of you, in turn, to identify a few items.
The drawers of the Materia Medica cabinet contain hundreds of samples of the plants and chemicals
that a Victorian pharmacist would have had to identify.
So, could you, for me, identify
this specimen here?
You should be able to recognise that, I think.
What part of the plant is it?
-No idea what that is.
Not at all? It's orange peel.
Well, it's not orange! Clearly, it can't be orange peel, because it's not orange!
It is used dried, particularly as a flavouring. What about this one?
What's that one?
-Is that black pepper?
-Absolutely right. Spot on! Well done.
Tom is hoping his botany revision is going to pay off.
What about starting with that one there, 67A?
-It's like resin of some sort.
-I'd say it's some sort of tree gum.
No, I can't get much closer than that.
I'd say...oh, what's a gummy sort of tree?
-A gum tree!
-A gum tree.
Oh! That's quite good, though.
Not bad. What about this section here?
Oh, I know this one. This is cardamom pods.
Very good. Straight to it. Known today for cooking.
Ruth, Eleanor and Mike should be able to identify all of the substances between them.
Let's start off with this little vial which you can pick out.
-Just be careful of the cork.
-Oh no, this does look hard.
-Oh, I know these. That's cochineal beetles.
-Absolutely it is, yeah!
Let's have a go at this one.
-I'm going to go with what she says, barberry.
-Is that your final answer?
-That's my final answer.
Briony has an extra test for the budding Victorian chemists.
So, number one, give the symbolic formulae
of ammonice carbonas,
chloroformum, and acidum tartaricum.
OK, so who's got the answer to question number one?
Oh yeah, Ruth there in the back row.
Very good. And the next one.
Oh really? Ruth again, OK. Chloroformum.
I think you're there. And the third one, tartaric acid. Oh, Ruth again.
This is hard.
So overall in the exam,
the back row came first, with Nick coming first in the suppository first round.
Next time on Victorian Pharmacy... As the 19th century progresses,
so too do the pharmacy's products.
Making aspirin to a 2,500-year-old formula.
In goes the ether.
-Nick perfects Victorian caches...
-Very chuffed about that.
..and their own brand perfume gets a mixed response.
-Not nice, is it? Not nice. I think it's more for you, than me.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
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Documentary series recreating a 19th-century pharmacy. The pharmacy enters a period of regulation and new laws. 1868 saw pharmacies regulated by law for the very first time and Ruth Goodman, Nick Barber and Tom Quick face a taste of the tough examinations pharmacists now needed to become qualified. They also explore the world of poisons and hazards that were completely unregulated until this time - from arsenic and opium to explosives. One of the hardest tests they face is to make their own suppositories.