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19th-century medicine chest


This wooden medicine chest from the mid to late 19th century has compartments containing a range of pharmaceuticals. It has been suggested that the chest was used at sea and might have belonged to a sea captain or a ship’s surgeon. It provides insight into 19th-century medical and pharmaceutical practices of the time, as well as the type of medical services provided during sea travel.

Many of these pharmaceuticals are long gone from contemporary medicine. Bitter Apple was administered as a purgative for constipation. Dover’s Powder, which contained opium and was used as a hypnotic sedative, was once grown on the cliffs of Dover in England.

The red resin called Dragon’s Blood was useful in the treatment of syphilis. Cocaine, a powerful local anaesthetic, was used in the extraction of teeth. James’s Fever Powder contained an irritant, antimony, which induced sweating when applied to the skin. It was believed that sweating alleviated a fever. Chloral could send a patient into a deep sleep.

A yellow compound with a penetrating odour, Iodoform acted as an antiseptic when applied to wounds, and was especially useful in the treatment of syphilitic ulcers. Logwood relieved the chronic diarrhoea that was suffered by those with dysentery. A case of pinworms was often remedied with a dose of Worm Powder followed up with castor oil. Rochelle Salts was a saline purgative used for digestive discomfort and the relief of constipation.

An astringent made from plants and appropriately titled Pile Ointment was used in the treatment of haemorrhoids.

Medicine chest (19th century)
 Medicine chest (19th century)

 Bottle of cocaine (19th century)

 Package of Dragon’s Blood (19th century)

 Bottle of James’s Fever Powder (19th century)
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Medicine chest (19th century)
Dimensions H 42 x W 62 x D 38 cm
Registration No. MV 44038
Image source: Museum Victoria

© Museum Victoria Australia