Documentary series recreating a 19th-century pharmacy. Nick Barber gathers meadowsweet, an ancient painkiller, with herbalist Eleanor Gallia.
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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've brought 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 are being 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 to get a bit of speed up. Oh, 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.
Having followed the evolution of the pharmacy
through 50 remarkable years,
Barber & Goodman's High Street shop is approaching the end of the 19th century.
The pharmacy has now moved into a new era of scientific understanding.
Old ideas of what caused disease and how to treat it have faded away,
and the foundations of modern medicine are firmly in place.
This is what the whole of the 19th century, in a sense, ends up as. It's a culmination.
It comes up to this, doesn't it?
And all of a sudden, we have this scientific knowledge.
The pharmacist has the expertise.
We're stocking branded products, probably for the first time. We're not making them ourselves any more.
Pharmacists are starting to look like... Well, department stores.
One discovery that led to a whole new range of products
was the understanding of pain relief.
For thousands of years, medicinal plants had been used to control pain,
but by the end of the 19th century, scientists had shown
that the pain-killing properties of some plants
were due to a chemical called salicylic acid.
Nick and herbalist Eleanor Gallia are on the hunt
for one of the most effective of these natural painkillers.
So, what's this plant we're seeking?
And what was it used for?
Digestive, calming digestive.
Very popular in rheumatism. Pain relief.
I keep thinking I see little bits of it.
It's very small at the moment.
There's some here, actually.
More of it here.
So, the effects depend partly on the time of the year
when it's picked, and obviously the parts of the plant which are picked?
Was that something which herbalists and chemists and druggists would have paid attention to?
Hugely. Very, very important. Especially so when, traditionally, herbalists were collecting
their own herbs, then dispensing their own herbs and making up tinctures and medicines.
-So, shall we pick some meadowsweet then?
Remembering all the time that this is just the very young growth.
It's used quite specifically in rheumatism and the pain that comes from that.
But really, the main action, the anti-acid action, which is...
It's got a lovely soothing action on the inside of the stomach.
It helps the mucosa, the alkali which protects the gut from
the acid that's produced in the whole digestive process.
We can make an infusion out of it, make it like a tea?
With the rise of industrialisation and the expansion of towns,
what you've got, really, is a lot of people in one place.
And pharmacies have a whole new group of people, urban dwellers,
that they're trying to cater to.
No longer just a provider of drugs and remedies,
the Victorian pharmacy now sold a wide range of products
which wouldn't look out of place in today's chemist shops.
When you walk into a pharmacy nowadays,
you're seeing over 100 years of history in front of you.
People wonder why there are things like perfumes in pharmacies,
why there are, you know, products to do with dentistry
or some of them selling glasses, and so on,
and all these were activities which were happening in the Victorian era.
Towards the end of Victoria's reign, an emerging middle class
with an increased disposable income looked to the pharmacy for more than just cures.
They wanted to be pampered too.
The pharmacists' expertise with chemicals left them well placed
to take advantage of this consumer boom.
Perfumier Alec Lawless is going to give Ruth
a lesson in perfume making.
You've brought some amazing stuff.
This is things from the first perfumier's trade.
Things for making perfumes.
I suppose in the earlier periods,
perfume was very much the reserve of the super-rich.
-Then that changes now?
-It changes dramatically.
What characterised this age was the beginning of mass production and branding.
You could sell an eau de cologne
and nobody was going to say, "You can't call that an eau de cologne."
There were several perfumes like that. One was called Jockey Club.
There was another called Mille Fleurs
and another called New-mown Hay.
Basically these names became known as perfume.
The other thing was the pharmacist -
because they'd been university trained,
they liked experimenting and they had this whole cornucopia.
A lot of the things that were used in apothecaries for medicine
were also perfume ingredients.
-I recognise most of the things. We've got a drawer full of myrrh sitting over there.
-There you go.
-That's sandalwood, isn't it?
We've got a drawer of that up that end.
Many of these are ingredients we have medicinally in the pharmacy anyway.
How easy would it be for us as, you know, local pharmacists,
to invent a perfume of our own?
Well, a lot of them did and I'm sure like a lot of recipes at the time,
these recipes come down.
But it's basically what you had in the fridge. THEY CHUCKLE
Could you give us some advice on how to make our own?
What sort of things should we do and perhaps even a name -
what sort of name would be appropriate?
Maybe we should pay homage to Queen Victoria in some way.
That would tie in very nicely with
parts of the Empire.
India - I mean, this is East Indian sandalwood, finest...
-It's one of the finest of all perfume ingredients
-and, of course, Queen Victoria is the Empress of India.
-"Empress of India."
I have to say, it sounds a lot nicer than Jockey Club.
Now we have to decide how to make it smell nice.
There were two oils and essences that were highly revered at the time
but still not used in perfumery, because of the exorbitant cost.
One of them was Rose Otto and the other one was sandalwood.
We're going to use both of those
because we want our perfume to be really posh.
Yes, but also relatively cheap to make
that we can sell for a high profit.
Oh, good point. OK.
-We can put some other... I'm going to put coriander in there.
-That sounds a bit cheaper.
That's a really nice little top note.
The daft thing is, when I said I was doing this, the boys wanted to have a go too.
Boys and perfume?
Nick and Tom both want to have a go too. We thought we might all have a go.
Why don't we split the perfume into top notes, middle notes and base notes
and each of you can have a play around
and come up with the combination for each of those that you like the best.
OK. I'll have a go with that.
Pharmacists were creating perfumes because they had the raw materials -
they had the plant products, the aromatic products,
the essences - and also, they needed to make money.
-Some money to deposit.
'If you look in the chemists and druggists of the time,
'you'll see pages of bankruptcies. It was an expensive thing to be in.'
You needed to stock your shop, you needed to buy the shop, or rent it,
so they had a lot of outgoings
and they needed the income to keep going as well.
They were diversifying into any areas to do with their knowledge
of chemicals and so on, which allowed them to make income.
-Thank you very much.
-Thank you very much. Have a good day. Bye-bye.
Hello, Eleanor. How are you?
-Perfect timing - kettle's just boiled.
-So, any chance of some of this meadowsweet tea?
See what it was like,
being a Victorian taking some natural medicine.
It was quite difficult in Victorian times with pain control.
I mean, partly, pain was thought to be sent there by God
so there's an issue about it.
When they introduced chloroform
to stop the pain of childbirth,
there was a lot of religious leaders against it,
saying it was stopping God's work being done.
So they were quite a barrier to it.
-And so, the movement against it...
was quite strong. People were saying, "This is against God's way."
Most of the natural products were used for pain control -
well, there were only natural products - were opium and cannabis.
Queen Victoria had cannabis for her period pains.
-What did the vicar say about that?
-I don't know. I think perhaps they didn't tell him.
-It's quite restorative as just a smell, isn't it?
-Yes, it's lovely.
-Good health, Nick.
Good health. This is very good.
I was prepared for a bit of a witch's brew, but this is good.
Plants like meadowsweet, and also willow,
had long been used to control pain.
But by the end of the 19th century,
the active ingredient, salicylic acid,
could be extracted using the latest laboratory techniques.
By isolating salicylic acid from meadowsweet and willow,
they could produce a range of painkilling medicines.
It is the key ingredient in modern, non-prescription painkillers such as aspirin.
This is the source of salicylic acid. It's willow bark.
Just from normal willow trees?
Normal willow trees.
That, if you chew it...
It's quite bitter, isn't it?
Hippocrates, in 400 BC,
was prescribing an infusion of willow leaves, not the bark -
you can use the leaves of the willow tree, as well as the bark -
to ease the pain of childbirth.
2,500 years we have known this is a painkiller.
Salicylic acid can reduce pain, it also is antipyretic.
Right, so it reduces fever, if you are hot and feverish.
It is anti-inflammatory.
Things like rheumatism or if you have an inflamed area of your body -
-your gums can be inflamed, all sorts of areas.
-It'll help treat that.
It's a bit of a wonder drug.
It is, isn't it?
It's still used in wart treatments.
It's used in strong concentration, to like 60%,
to burn off warts.
The first step is to grind this bark down.
If Nick and scientist Mike Bullivant can extract
the salicylic acid from the willow bark,
then Nick can make up painkillers to sell in the pharmacy.
-Having ground it...
-How are we going to get it out?
-..the next step is to add some ether.
Ether? Why are we using ether?
The ether is a solvent that will dissolve the salicylic acid.
After allowing the mixture to settle,
the solution is filtered to remove all the willow fibres.
What's coming through the filter funnel
should be an ether solution of salicylic acid and other things.
And the next step is getting rid of those other things,
so we're left with as pure a salicylic acid as possible.
Do you think this would have been worth it for the pharmacist,
in terms of the cost of the ingredients and stuff,
and the yield of salicylic acid that they get out?
The yield's really low - I suspect we're going to get a very low yield.
-Don't expect too much.
-But, yeah, I think it would have been, perhaps, economical if you had the time.
-Because the willow bark is free.
It takes time and patience, doesn't it?
Oh! Like life...
take your time.
-In goes the ether and salicylic acid and other things.
-And other things.
To isolate the salicylic acid from all the other chemicals in the bark,
it's first turned into a salt by adding sodium carbonate -
better known as washing soda.
If I give a good shake, that's just getting the two layers mixed up as much as you possibly can.
The two layers are separated out.
Then Mike adds dilute sulphuric acid
to turn the salt into solid salicylic acid.
Whoa! See, that's neutralising the sodium carbonate
and converting it back to acid, you see?
It's changing the colour
-and do you see that white solid coming down?
-Now, that salicylic acid that's forming - can you see?
A white, feathery solid.
So it's not looking too bad at the moment.
It's heartening that we've got some salicylic acid.
It's amazing - just three or four stages,
going from...pieces of plant
all the way through to a pure chemical.
-Just leave that to settle.
If you look back to the start of the period -
like, sort of early 19th century, medicine is very much a personal thing.
You know, sort of, maybe take your family recipe to the pharmacist
to get it made up.
And compare that with the end of the century,
when you're kind of putting yourself in the hands of a community of specialists
who have trained for a long time and built up a different kind of authority.
It's no longer "What my parents did",
now it's, "Who has the knowledge?"
In a time when most people walked everywhere,
relief from foot pain was in high demand.
Local businessman Richard Eley
has come to see what the Victorian Pharmacy could offer for his problem.
Well, I have a rather painful, but rather small, corn
on the inside of my little toe.
Oh, I see. Yeah, you can sort of see a sore area.
The pain goes from my little toe up to my knee,
to the point where I have considered having my little toe amputated.
Really, as bad as that?
It offers Ruth an opportunity to find another use for salicylic acid.
In stronger concentrations,
the chemical Nick and Mike have made as a painkiller
can also be used to remove warts and corns.
Well, the Victorian wonder-drug for this -
the thing that they thought was going to transform the care -
was salicylic acid.
Ah, salicylic acid!
And in fact, I've got...
Actually, this is a modern preparation of salicylic acid.
There's a few other things in here to carry the acid.
You can have it in a liquid form
-or put on little corn plasters that you applied.
You'd get a little tin with medicated corn plasters.
-So, it's just...
-Just at the side there.
Just there, yeah? That little area. There we go.
That should whiten as it dries
and you get a skin over it.
It holds the active ingredient against the affected part.
-It does actually burn the skin away?
-Yeah, it sort of slowly...
kills the whole area and that allows the...
virus, basically, to be lifted out.
Now you see it, now you don't.
Basically, you take that away
and a drop every day on the same spot.
-A drop every day keeps the corn away.
-That's the theory.
Nick is ready to use the same chemical -
the salicylic acid he and Mike made - to prepare some cachets,
thin rice-paper capsules that he can fill with the finished drug.
As a modern pharmacist, it's a skill he's never needed to learn before.
There you are, Nick. Here's your salicylic acid.
-Fantastic. Well done.
-Last time you saw it, it was in a filter funnel and it looked like that.
I said I'd purify it by re-crystallising it.
-That was the result.
-They're fantastic - really long needles.
You wanted it really pure. So I took that,
the needles, and re-crystallised them. What I've ended up is really pure needles, which I've ground up.
-You asked for it ground and that's it. There's your pure salicylic acid.
I'm going to stick them in these cachets.
I'm going to have to mix that... It'd be such a small amount in each one,
I'll mix it with something which is OK to swallow like citric acid,
grind them together,
make a nice mixture and then we just...
put an amount in each of these cachets.
Then we put the other half in this,
close it up and they stick together.
You know those sweets - flying saucers, they were called, or spaceships.
Two halves of rice paper with some sherbet in the middle.
Stick them in your mouth and they dissolve and the sherbet's released.
This rice paper, as you know, once it gets wet -
a bit of acid on it - it will fall apart and release the powder.
Ready for action.
There you are. Don't use either of those, cos they're impure.
That's what you work with.
Brilliant. Thanks very much, mate. See you later.
Let's see how this goes.
This will be the top half of each cachet.
They're quite delicate, so I'm a bit worried about cracking them.
I don't quite know how far to press them in.
Quite a tight fit.
Press these down and hope.
-That's all we can do at this stage.
And now, fingers crossed...
Yay! Look at that.
Now, you use this thing to push them out as well.
I'm really pleased about this. I didn't think...
it would work anywhere near as well as that.
Look at that - perfect cachets, holding together.
You can hear the powder inside.
What we have been through is just, erm...
a remarkable process, really,
which doesn't happen nowadays.
It's the sort of thing which... Everything's manufactured and standardised.
We started with willow bark - a natural product -
and we've chemically extracted the key element
and we've put the salicylic acid in here,
in this dose form, ready to give to a patient,
or as a Victorian person would give to a patient.
Salicylic acid was an effective painkiller,
but could be a stomach irritant.
The big breakthrough came in 1899 when aspirin,
a chemically altered version of it with less side effects,
was released onto the market.
Whatever the content,
cachets allowed pharmacists to dispense a pre-measured dose.
The practical problem for the patient was swallowing them.
Student Tom Chandler has volunteered to try one out.
..powder's put inside, in two halves...
The texts of the time would say, "Just take it down like an oyster."
OK. Is there any more advice than that you can give me?
-If you're not an oyster eater, it's not very helpful really.
-I think you're going to have to work it out for yourself. Are you willing to give it a go?
-Yeah, why not?
-Dunk it in the water.
-OK, just get a bit wet.
-Is that enough?
-In your mouth, back of the tongue.
And swig it down, swallow it.
It feels like it's stuck about here.
-Oh, my goodness.
-It's big, isn't it?
-You wouldn't get a modern tablet that size.
But as it softens with the water and the moisture of your body,
it will start deforming and be easier to go down.
Yeah, I can feel it sort of, like, moving.
-Whereabouts is it now?
-It's about here, getting slightly lower.
It'll work its way down, and in reality,
you'd have a biscuit or a piece of bread with it
or something like that, if it were stuck.
It physically knocks it down into the stomach,
then dissolves and releases the drug and cures your headache, hopefully.
Thank you very much.
I bet you're glad science has moved on and now we have aspirin tablets.
I'm so glad. Small things rather than those, definitely.
Nick, Ruth and Tom are receiving a crash course in perfume making
as they try to create a scent
that would have appealed to the Victorian nose.
19th Century perfumiers applied scientific ideas to the ancient art of perfume making.
They used musical terms to describe how a scent should be constructed.
This symphony of smell
was made up of three separate mixtures of fragrant oils,
known as the top, middle and base notes,
which evaporate at different rates on the skin.
Perfumier Alec Lawless has given Tom the job
of making up the long-lasting base note.
It seems that two of these are a lot stronger than the other three.
-I was wondering if I'm sort of making... Is it the base note?
What's the idea? Is it...
These things are the most tenacious and the reason for that is
-that they're heavier molecules than the top or the middle notes.
So, they're going to retard the evaporation of the perfume.
So it's the bits that comes out last, basically.
This will be what's left on the skin.
Nick has been entrusted with the most expensive ingredients.
The smell is so intense that it's driving out anything else...
These are the middle notes, the floral heart -
the main personality of the perfume.
These guys are really expensive.
The powerful fragrances are proving a little too much for Ruth.
The lady is very sensitive and delicate.
You told me these were not overpowering. You lied. They are...
You're obviously incredibly sensitive.
I smelt all four of them first,
-by which time my nose was beginning to burn.
And then I thought, well, the one that I liked best still was the bergamot oil
so I put more of that in.
You mentioned the lime was particularly strong, so I put the least of that in.
-I'm going to go for that one.
-The second one.
If the team's efforts can be combined into a popular perfume,
then the Empress of India scent
could be a real money-spinner for the pharmacy.
Now, in order to have some sort of structure,
these would be blended. Roughly...
50% of it is going to be the floral heart,
20% the top notes and 30% the base notes.
just as a rule of thumb.
I'm also going to put some musk in there
and one or two other things.
Making it entirely your own.
They were too expensive to let you play with.
Alec blends the three sets of fragrant oils together
to produce the finished perfume.
If you wave it around a bit to encourage the oxygen to...
accelerate the evaporation.
I didn't smell either of your two independently, and this certainly smells very different from mine,
-when it's blended.
-That's all right.
-It's quite complex.
I think it's really funny tha you chaps are enjoying the perfume more than me.
-It's great fun!
All we need to do now is get that properly bottled
and a nice label on it
and start making some money out of it.
Exactly. We can have different dilutions for different people.
Ruth is keen to find out if the Empress of India will be a hit with the ladies of the town.
I wonder if you could help me.
I'm doing a bit of market research about perfume.
-I love perfume.
-I do, yes.
-That's a very fine bottle. I do like that.
-It's nice, isn't it?
Let me know what you really think. It's quite a potent one.
Just have a little sniff and see what you think.
-Ooh, yeah, it is, in't it?
-Strong, isn't it?
-It's quite strong.
It's lovely. Yes. It's quite flowery.
-If I just pop just a tiny little bit on there.
-It is a strong one, isn't it?
-It's growing on me.
-Well, that's a good sign.
Not nice, is it? Not nice. I think it's more for you than for me.
One of the things the perfumier said to me
-was that it smells different on everybody.
-Oh, it's beautiful.
-It smells quite expensive.
It would have been expensive at the time.
In the Victorian period,
you would begin to see perfume getting a little bit cheaper,
so people like school mistresses could afford, occasionally, a little bit of perfume.
-I'm going to have some for Christmas.
-You really think this something you would actually enjoy,
-that would stand up against a modern perfume?
-Definitely - it's quite a strong, powerful smell.
This is quite flowery, which is lovely. Thank you for popping in.
Next time, on Victorian Pharmacy,
the 19th century draws to a close.
That's good, keep it up. The faster the better.
The team embrace the inventions and some secrets of the time.
This is one of the most exciting things I think I've found in the pharmacy.
And with a massive expansion of products and services,
they'll take a giant step into the 20th century.
Watch the birdie, keep still.
And towards the high street pharmacy we know today.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Nick Barber gathers meadowsweet, an ancient painkiller, with herbalist Eleanor Gallia before going into the lab to extract salicylic acid from willow bark to make the Victorian version of aspirin - producing a treatment for warts and corns along the way. As diversification in the pharmacy continues, Nick, Ruth Goodman and Tom Quick turn their hands to making their very own brand of perfume. But will the public try it?