Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

Yes its plague week, and yes I promised to post something today on the topic, but ironically (and inconveniently) I’m not feeling well. (Oooohh, maybe its Y. pestis? Maybe I should coat myself in mercury and hop in the oven…) So, I owe an extra post tomorrow on Plaguey goodness.

In the meantime, to satisfy your craving for the weird treatments of yore, check out this excellent post over at the ever-cantankerous and pithy Drugmonkey. The post details what was really in “Mrs Winlow’s Soothing Syrup,” which was given to teething newborns in the late 1800s.

It will come as no surprise to the modern reader to find the active ingredients of “nostrums” were quite frequently cocaine, opium/heroin/morphine or cannabis extracts.



  1. #1 Cuttlefish
    January 9, 2008

    If you’re asked to consume such a tonic
    Just remember this little mnemonic
    And recite “I’m Not Batts!”
    (Wait–you are? Damn. Well… rats.)
    Could be worse–it could be a colonic.

    Feel better!


  2. #2 ben
    January 10, 2008

    There’s a decentish novel called “If I Never Get Back”, by Darryl Brock, set amongst the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings baseball team. One of the players goes through bottles of “Old Mother Approvington’s Laudunamical Syrup For Robust Protestant Good Health” or something like that.

  3. #3 Ghosty
    January 10, 2008

    I’m old enough to recall when codeine in cough syrup was a regular thing. Does that count?

  4. #4 Drugmonkey
    January 10, 2008

    Thanks for the Shellanche!

    but “cantankerous”? hey now…..

  5. #5 ian findlay
    January 10, 2008

    In fact, he does not give a list of the ingredients.

  6. #6 Drugmonkey
    January 10, 2008

    “In fact, he does not give a list of the ingredients.”

    naah, you have to actually click the mouse button for that, lazybones. kids these days.

    aside from contributing to your health, I think it is neat to browse around on the older pubs. scholarship my friends. maybe you’ll notice something that nobody else did, for example there is some other interesting junk in Mrs. Winslow’s that I saw referenced once or twice but didn’t track down for the post.

    not to mention the gee whiz. for example, a case report on “vaginismus” caught my eye browsing these documents, now wtf is that?

  7. #7 jen_m
    January 11, 2008

    Vaginismus is a modern diagnosis with an ICD-10 code and everything! It’s an abnormally strong and painful contraction of the vaginal musculature during sexual intercourse. It can be quite damaging to a woman’s sex life and self-esteem.

    I wouldn’t be surprised at all if it was treated with opiate tinctures or “mechanical or manual induction of hysterical paroxysm” in the nineteenth century. (I also wouldn’t be surprised if the treatments actually worked for some women, between muscle relaxation from opiate or orgasm, and decoupling of the conditioned pain response from sexual stimulus.)

  8. #8 Drugmonkey
    January 11, 2008

    in this case it was apparently the “belladonna ointment”.

    “Complete muscular relaxation and anaesthesia being produced by the administration of ether, I introduced two fingers from each hand into the vagina, and forcibly stretched the orifice; a large tampon, three inches long and three inches in circumference, thickly coated with belladonna ointment, was passed into the vagina, and allowed to remain in position for twenty-four hours, when an ordinary bivalve vaginal speculum was introduced, and the blades slightly separated.”

  9. #9 Shelley Batts
    January 11, 2008

    OMG. Drugmonkey, if you blog the Belladonna Tampon, I promise you another Shellanche. 🙂

  10. #10 Drugmonkey
    January 11, 2008
  11. #11 Drugmonkey
    January 11, 2008

    oi, and now stupid me. that was for the soothing syrup

    gotta page down two pages…

  12. #12 Dave Briggs
    January 11, 2008

    I’m old enough to recall when codeine in cough syrup was a regular thing. Does that count?

    Posted by: Ghosty | January 10, 2008 10:36 AM

    Ya, me too!
    I wonder what neat little surprises we will have in store in 10 or 20 years when someone lists the things we were regularly consuming now?
    Dave Briggs :~)

  13. #13 Drugmonkey
    January 11, 2008

    you mean like Sudafed?

  14. #14 Frank Lorey
    January 16, 2008

    I actually tried to do an episode for the Wild West Tech show on the History Channel called “Medicine Show Tech”. We were going to cover a lot of those “remedies”, including the radium mine “arthritis treatment”. Also, a lot of the common “snake oils” from back then were going to be on the show, too. The idea was cancelled because Pfizer was a major advertiser on the show, and they did not like the idea. We had other ideas cancelled at various stages of writing because they were not “PC”. I did get to do a lot of good shows, however–just had to work within some pretty strict guidelines at times.

  15. #15 Drugmonkey
    January 22, 2008

    “The idea was cancelled because Pfizer was a major advertiser on the show, and they did not like the idea.”

    I’m having trouble understanding why. If anything is an argument for why we need Big Pharma and how great they are it is the unregulated Patent Medicine era… or perhaps they’d like to return to days of yore, save with BigPatentMedicineNQuackery as the “hero”….

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