When things aren’t quite what they seem.

I’ve just recently been reading some shocking statistics about the problems with buying medicines over the internet in that they often don’t contain any of the active ingredient or might be mixed in with all sorts of other cheaper powders such as talc, salt and so on. Well it’s not just a recent problem. In researching for material about the use of medicines in the 1800’s I stumbled upon the following extract from a review of Mr Bigelow’s Materia Medica of 1822 (Mr Bigelow was Professor of Materia Medica at Harvard University).

Mr Bigelow points out problems they had observed with the supply of cinchona bark, known as Peruvian bark which contains quinine, used in the treatment of malaria.

“It is just beginning to be discovered, that the real Peruvian bark is a scarce article in the markets of the United States, and that its place is taken by a cheaper bark, of a different character, brought from Carthagena and Caraccas, under the name of yellow bark, and which there are reasons for supposing to belong to a species of Portlandia. Our importing merchants and druggists inform me, that this Carthagena bark, under the name of yellow Peruvian bark, constitutes probably nine tenths of the reputed cinchona now consumed in the United States, its wholesale price being to that of real bark of Peru as about one to fifteen. “

This leads on to a beautifully eloquent, yet pained account of his disappointment in the poor quality of medicines available at the time:

“But when druggist and apothecary, pestle and mortar, enter into the lists against us ; when death attacks us through our medicines as well as our diseases ; when we swallow poison and saw-dust in the potion which we hoped to find a healing draught ; when we find there is no balm in Gilead which is not sophisticated by vermilion, red lead, or plaster of Paris ; this is indeed the unkindest cut of all, and we can only dispose ourselves to yield up the contest with what dignity we may, and fall with the dying exclamation of Caesar upon our lips.”

Hear, hear. Such a profound sense of betrayal.

Death of Caesar via Wikimedia Commons from http://ugo.bratelli.free.fr/Cesar/Cesar-sa%20mort.jpg Vincenzo Camuccini, Mort de César, 1798)

The reference for this is (needs password for access): 

Review: [untitled] Source: The North American Review, Vol. 16, No. 39 (Apr., 1823), pp. 365-378 Published by: University of Northern Iowa.  Stable URL:   



Hello world!

This blog will be about how medicines work, I’ll pick up whatever interesting pieces of information I find.