This post accompanies Marieke Hendriksen’s Journal of Victorian Culture article ‘Consumer Culture, Self-Prescription, and Status: Nineteenth-Century Medicine Chests in the Royal Navy’ (2015), which can be downloaded here.
In early September 2012, with my PhD thesis under review and a postdoctoral fellowship lined up for October, I arrived at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London, for a five-week research project on the medicine chests in the museum’s collections. From the online collection database I had gathered that there were nine ship surgeon’s medicine chests from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. As a historian of eighteenth-century medicine with an interest in material culture, I was curious what these chests and their contents could tell us about the lives, status, travels and practices of their owners.
My first stop after the NMM was the Wellcome Library, where I had noticed that a rare out-of-print book on antique medicine chests was kept. After reading that book on the first day and looking at the object descriptions and photographs of the medicine chests again, I realized two things: these medicine chests were almost all from the mid-nineteenth century, and most were very unlikely to have been used as ship’s surgeon’s medicine chests. They were too small to serve an entire ship’s crew, and most had the luxury fittings that one would expect to see on a gentlemen’s medicine chest, rather than the crude fittings of ship surgeon’s chests.
After a small panic attack (I don’t know anything about the nineteenth century! I’ve only got five weeks!) I got excited about exploring this new world, especially when I was allowed to study the contents of the chests in the storage rooms and found a lot of material about the alleged owners of the chests in the NMM’s Caird Library. The chests and their contents told a story of increased mobility and an upcoming middle class working in the Royal Navy, relying on self-prescription of much the same herbal remedies that had been used for centuries, but which were now for the first time effectively marketed for a specific consumer group by enterprising high street chemists.
The gentlemen’s medicine chest typically was a luxuriously fitted chest of lacquered mahogany with plush lining, brass handles, and slots and drawers filled with stoppered bottles containing materia medica with the selling chemist’s labels on them as well as mini mortars, pestles and scales. Some of the chests contained the first signs of the changes that occurred in Victorian medicine, like effective but highly addictive painkillers and patented plant alkaloid remedies such as Chlorodyne, containing a mixture of laudanum (opium solution), cannabis and chloroform.
In line with the chests, the Naval employees who owned these chests turned out not to have been ship’s surgeon’s at all, but middle class gentlemen whose personal lives and status were reflected by the size, quality, and contents of their respective medicine chests. Moreover, an interesting contrast emerged between the gentlemen’s chests and a chest from the NMM collections that was retrieved from the Arctic in 1859 after the loss of the Franklin expedition in search of a Northwestern passage. The Franklin chest turned out to be an exemplar of an institutional or ship surgeon’s chest, made from untreated pine and rough cloth, filled with bottles with handwritten labels in Latin.
Another unexpected effect of my going through the contents of the chests was that I was able to help the conservation department identify potentially hazardous substances and opiates. Although one of the purposes of my project was to extent and improve the descriptions of the NMM medicine chests, I had not expected to be able to contribute to conservation too in such a short time. After five weeks, I left the NMM with two folders full of notes, photos and copied documents, and started my postdoctoral research in the Netherlands. It took me two years to finish my paper on the medicine chests next to my new job, but this is still one of the most fun and rewarding projects I have done.