Regency Medicine: Herbs, Snake Oil, And 'Mother's Friend'
Updated: Oct 11
By Jan Ashton, author of A Famous Good Marrying Scheme
Nobody is healthy in London, nobody can be.
Emma, Volume I, Chapter 12
Whether one lived in town or country, poor health, fits of nerves, ailments and disease were common topics of conversation (and speculation) in Jane Austen’s time. And small wonder since so little was understood of the nature of illnesses and infections. Getting them appropriately treated depended on knowledge, common sense, and means—and often whether one was attended by a physician, surgeon, or apothecary.
In A Famous Good Marrying Scheme, when Jane Bennet’s sense and memory are affected by a knock on the head, she is fortunate to be attended by Meryton’s apothecary as well as Mr Darcy’s London physician.
Neither is at fault when Jane’s condition takes an unlikely turn, although certain characters might be quick to point the finger of blame at Mr Jones, a ‘mere’ village apothecary. Since apothecaries learned their profession through an apprenticeship, they were considered to be in trade. While their duties did include mixing and dispensing prescriptions ordered by physicians, they took on larger roles in country towns and villages and often made house calls and treated patients.
Physicians were considered more prestigious; their services were the most expensive, and they were assumed (sometimes erroneously) to be the best trained and most skilled medical professionals. Jane Austen carried that view in Pride and Prejudice. When Jane Bennet’s cold worsens at Netherfield: ‘Bingley urged Mr Jones’s being sent for immediately; while his sisters, convinced that no country advice could be of any service, recommended an express to town for one of the most eminent physicians. This she would not hear of, but she was not so unwilling to comply with their brother’s proposal; and it was settled that Mr Jones should be sent for early in the morning if Miss Bennet were not decidedly better. Bingley was quite uncomfortable; his sisters declared that they were miserable.’
Charlotte Brontë clearly agreed as when she wrote Jane Eyre’s declaration: ‘Mr Lloyd, an apothecary, sometimes called in by Mrs Reed when the servants were ailing; for herself and the children she employed a physician.’
For centuries, laudanum, a tincture of opium in alcohol, was the most widely prescribed pain reliever. It was prescribed for all classes of diseases and regularly used for sleeping draughts. According to the formula devised by Dr Thomas Sydenham, laudanum consisted of 2 oz strained opium, 1 oz saffron, 1 dram cinnamon, and cloves dissolved in a pint of canary wine.
While an apothecary or physician might provide laudanum and calomel (mercury!), women in the regency had basic nursing skills and created home remedies to care for their families. The lady of the house (or her housekeeper) could produce bark, peppermint and barley waters for fevers; cardamom for heartburn or nausea; tinctures of onion juice and vinegar for gout; salts of hartshorn dissolved with perfume in vinegar or alcohol for fainting or nervousness; and mustard baths for colds, as well as poultices, blisters and plasters. Dried and powdered root of rhubarb was a popular herbal cure-all, as was an onion roasted in embers.
Knowledgeable households might also keep a copy of a suitable ‘home doctoring’ book to hand. Culpepers’ Complete Herbal, first published in 1653, provided a comprehensive guide to herbal cures. William Buchan’s Domestic Medicine warned against certain folk remedies: ‘Many attempt to cure a cold, by getting drunk. But this, to say no worse of it, is a very hazardous and fool-hardy experiment.’
Of course, most families had copies of receipts passed down over generations. Martha Lloyd, who lived with Jane and Cassandra Austen at Chawton, and later married their brother Frank, provided the ‘cure’ for Jane’s whooping cough. It read:
Cut off the hair from the top of the head as large as a crown piece. Take a piece of brown paper of the same size: dip it in rectified oyl of amber, and apply it to the part for nine mornings, dipping the paper fresh every morning. If the cough is not remov’d try it again after three or four days.
The regency-era doctor might also rely on Elizabeth Blackwell’s guidebook, A Curious Herbal, containing illustrations and descriptions of plants, their medicinal preparations, and the ailments for which they should be used. Blackwell drew, engraved and colored the illustrations herself to raise money to pay her husband’s debts and release him from debtors’ prison. Her work, completed in 1739, won high praise from physicians and apothecaries and made enough money for Blackwell to secure her husband’s freedom. A copy of the book from King George III’s collection is in the British Library.
The average man or woman also could find plenty of bottled tinctures, tonics and remedies sold by shopkeepers without a prescription. Newspapers of the day were full of advertisements for medicines such as Daffy’s Elixir, claiming to cure a broad array of unrelated conditions. Not only were these remedies of unproven effectiveness and questionable safety, but many of these products also contained powerful narcotics and opiates. Still, they could carry the ‘patent medicine’ label, granting the inventor a monopoly over his particular formula.
English merchant Robert Turlington earned a prestigious royal patent in 1744 for his ‘Balsam of Life’. Turlington claimed that the balsam contained 27 ingredients and was effective in the treatment of 'kidney and bladder stones, cholic, and inward weakness'. Despite the royal stamp of approval, no evidence remains of its efficacy.
Many miracle cure claims went too far. Sellers of liniments supposedly containing snake oil and falsely promoted as miracle cures made the phrase ‘snake oil salesman’ a lasting moniker for a charlatan. In the early 19th century, Dr Samuel Solomon’s Balm of Gilead was a popular cure for nervous illness. Claiming the ingredients originated in the holy land, he recommended a course of at least a dozen bottles (at half a guinea per bottle) and said the medicine would work only if the patient believed in it. Believe in it they did—until the revelation that said ingredients were half a pint of brandy infused with cardamon seeds, lemon peel, tincture of cantharides, and perfumed with Sicilian oregano. Soon, Balm's popularity began to decline.
During this period, Dalby’s Carminative and Godfrey’s Cordial were the two most widely used patent medicines for babies and children. They were known as ‘mother’s friends’ and were used (often against a doctor’s advice) for everything from colic and teething to coughs and typhoid. The main active ingredient in both formulas was opium. As its addictive qualities became widely known, doctors and apothecaries issued warnings about not taking more than the prescribed dose.
Advice on proper dosing falls on deaf ears at the Bennet household in A Famous Good Marrying Scheme. Poor Jane. Had only her mother been a great reader, she might have looked at William Buchan’s 1803 pamphlet: Advice to Mothers on the Subject of their Own Health and on the Means of Promoting the Health, Strength and Beauty of their Offspring.
But contrary to what Mrs Bennet may hope, no sure-fire cream or tincture to ‘preserve one’s beauty’ exists. Although, imagine her effusions had Botox been available during the regency!
Thomas Rowlandson’s illustration: Death and the Apothecary or The Quack Doctor.
Jane Austen’s England, by Roy and Lesley Adkins
Medical Botany, Or, Illustrations and Descriptions of the Medicinal Plants of the London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Pharmacopœias