A new documentary series, Victorian Pharmacy, started on BBC 2 on Thursday inspired by the popular Victorian Farm, this time domestic historian Ruth Goodman, pharmacy professor Nick Barber and history of medicine student Tom Quick deal with the world of Victorian medicine. The first episode dealt with really fascinating topics and tested many of the Victorian treatments on volunteers to see what effect they would have had. The programme also explored the development of the Victorian Pharmacy from herbalism through chemical experimentation to the creation of commercially sold medicines with the John Boot’s establishment of Boots the Chemists in 1849.

Professor Nick Barber inside the pharmacy

It is well known that the Victorians had a very limited understanding of how diseases were transmitted and so hygiene was of little importance in the pharmacy, however the programme does shockingly demonstrate to what extent this was the case. For example patients were provided with a special bowl to spit phlegm into; however the team explains how the Victorians used the tuberculosis-ridden bowl again and again because they considered it ‘clean’ as long as the phlegm was washed out with water. Additionally, during the period, blood-soaked bandages were just washed in water, hung up to dry and reused on other patients, before the Victorians realised the dangers of contamination. The Guardian:

Last night’s episode started promisingly enough, with Goodman and her new team –– decking out their shop with carboys full of brightly coloured potions and stacking the shelves with a range of mysteriously named remedies. But it wasn’t long before a very large fly appeared in the ointment. As Barber pointed out: “Anyone could be a chemist in those days and they killed people if they got things wrong.” Understandably, this wasn’t a chance the producers were prepared to take. So what we got was Victorian Pharmacy With 21st Century Health and Safety Regulations, which rather undermined the whole point of the programme.

Of course it is unrealistic to expect a thorough retesting of all treatments to the point of causing fatalities, but what I find more interesting is the exploration of the history of medicine and the wide range of roles held by pharmacists. Victorian pharmacies also worked on making exotic foods that required precise recipes. For example a recipe for curry powder was brought back from India and given to pharmacists John Lea and William Perrins to be made up. It was suggested the mixture could be a sauce, however the result was considered disgusting by the makers and by chance was left to ferment in the pharmacy cellar. The fermented mixture was found later and, tasting much better, began to be sold as Lea & Perrins’ Worcestershire Sauce in 1838. In the programme, Ruth Goodman tests the original recipe and interestingly the unfermented version tastes much nicer than the creators’ verdict suggests. This exploration of the intricacies of the role of Victorian pharmacists and their part in the creation of existing brands is what I found particularly interesting in this episode of Victorian Pharmacy and I look forward to the next programme, Thursday 9pm BBC 2.

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