Published by Claire Olszewski.
Poisons, while not common in everyday life today, were abundant in the medical sciences of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. We all know the symbol for poison, the skull and crossbones, that marks lethal substances. Within the International Museum of Surgical Science’s collection are examples of various concoctions that were used in curing ailments. Many of them are in mysterious bottles labeled “POISON.” I thought I would dive into the interesting histories of a select few.
A small metal tin labeled “Blue Ointment – Poison” with a skull and crossbones is not something you would see in medicine cabinet today. However, in the early 20th century, it was not an uncommon sight. Blue Ointment, or Unguentum Hydrargyri Fortius (2), was a parasiticide treatment for many skin conditions such as syphilis and lice. This useful substance was to be administered carefully and in small doses, as it contains a 2:1 ratio of lard and mercury. Mercury is a highly toxic substance to the human body, especially when in the form of gas. When high amounts of medicinal mercury are absorbed through the skin, patients experience a number of symptoms, including but not limited to headaches, muscle weakness and changes in nerve responses. Fatal accidents have been reported in which the entire body surface was covered with Blue Ointment. (4) After further development of treatments and antibiotics, Blue Ointment fell largely out of use.
While you wouldn’t see this next one in the everyday home, it was (and still is) a very popular and lethal chemical used in the medical field. Formalin, a colorless solution of formaldehyde, water and methanol, was originally used as an embalming agent. We can thank this substance for aiding in the preservation of cadavers and in-turn furthering the medical study of the human body, as well as animals like frogs. If you smell this poison, you may be reminded of high school biology class on dissection day. Formalin is highly toxic when ingested and “can lead to immediate deleterious effects on almost all systems of the body including gastrointestinal tract, central nervous system, cardiovascular system and hepato-renal system, causing gastrointestinal hemorrhage, cardiovascular collapse, unconsciousness or convulsions, severe metabolic acidosis and acute respiratory distress syndrome.” (5) The bottle in our collection at the International Museum of Surgical Science was produced by a company called Schering and Glatz, which has an interesting history of its own. The German pharmaceutical company’s United States subsidiary was almost run to the ground during World War II (1942) when the United States Government took control of all German property in the US. Schering & Glatz reentered the U.S. market decades later in 1972. They are still around today producing fertility and hormone controlling drugs, after bought by Bayer Global in 2006. A fun fact about formaldehyde is that it can be used in an autopsy to determine whether or not the deceased was suffocated at the time of their death. If the lungs float in a solution of formaldehyde, the person was able to breathe! (1)
The last example of poison I have to share is a bottle of Laudanum. This reddish-brown, extremely bitter liquid was used as treatment for many afflictions, mental and physical. Laudanum is an opium tincture containing opium alkaloids: morphine and codeine. It was named by Paracelsus, “the father of toxicology,” and was believed to mean “something to be praised” in Latin. Used throughout Victorian society as a muscle relaxer, cough suppressant, etc., the medicine is highly addictive. It has the reputation of having inspired writers, poets and artists, such as Charles Dickens, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas De Quincey. (6) In 1868 after numerous overdoses of the once over-the-counter drug, restrictions were put into place and the bottle had to be clearly labeled as a poison. Overdoses of Laudanum result in respiratory depression, dysphoria, and death. This bottle of Laudanum here at the Museum is part of a set in a doctor’s medical case, likely used in the late 1800’s. These cases were taken on house calls where the medicine would be delivered through a pipette onto the patient’s tongue to relieve their ailments. In 1899, aspirin replaced Laudanum as the go-to pain suppressant and new addiction rates were no longer on an upward trajectory.
1. “Formaldehyde Uses.” ScienceStruck, ScienceStruck, sciencestruck.com/formaldehyde-uses.
2. “History.” Formacare History, www.formacare.org/history/.
3. HOOPER, Robert, and Klein Grant. Lexicon Medicum: or, Medical Dictionary … Fourth Edition.Seventh ed., A Spottiswoode, 1839.
4. Mercurial Pesticides, Man, and the Environment, Environmental Protection Agency, 1971.
5. Pandey, CK, et al. “Toxicity of Ingested Formalin and Its Management.” Review of US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. Toxicity of Ingested Formalin and Its Management., vol. 19, no. 6, 1 June 200AD, pp. 360–366, journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1191/096032700678815954.
6. The Lure of Laudanum, the Victorians’ Favorite Drug.” Mental Floss, 29 Nov. 2016, mentalfloss.com/article/89268/lure-laudanum-victorians-favorite-drug.
Claire Olszewski is the Permanent Collection Intern at the International Museum of Surgical Science. She graduated from Columbia College Chicago in December of 2017 with her BA in Visual Arts Management and minor in Art History. She currently works at Linda Warren Projects as a Gallery Assistant.