Narcotic cocaine to war a cough. The patient arrived doubled up with pain: breathless, faint and exhausted, clutching her chest, her lips tinged an alarming shade in blue. Doctors at St. George’s Hospital in London knew just what to do. They treated her with an ether mixture and a laxative, and finished with a flourish, a new wonder drug that was fresh to the market, having been launched the year before as a cough suppressant.

Cocaine to war a cough, patient died

To scientists it was diacetylmorphine, but the pharmaceutical firm Bayer, seeking a snappier brand name, called it Heroin. You may have heard of it. The patient, alas, died a few days later, senior physician William Ewart told the annual meeting of the British Medical Association in 1899. Heroin wasn’t to blame, but its days as a moreish over the counter sedative proved equally short-lived.

Using a powerful narcotic to tackle a cough may seem a tad disproportionate, but this was an era when consumption was rife, and when industrialisation, urbanisation, poverty, overcrowding and poor sanitation conspired to short-change Britons of their allotted three score years and ten in all manner of unpleasant ways.
An age of disease inspired an age of remedies. From the travelling medicine men of the Wild West to the pages of the local press in Britain, miracle cures were everywhere. Proof, if it is needed, lies in the British Newspaper Archive. Pick a paper. Any paper. The Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald, say. On February 23, 1889.

On the front, an advertisement for Dr West’s Nerve and Brain Treatment promised a catch all cure for conditions ranging from hysteria to depression to premature old age. 25 shillings bought a box containing six months’-worth of treatment. Expensive, but a small price compared to the ‘misery, decay and death’ you otherwise risked.

A turn of the page reveals a riot of medicinal adverts, from Clarke’s world-famed Blood Mixture for cancerous ulcers and scurvy sores to Holloway’s ointment to ease ‘bad legs and old wounds’ to Electro Galvanic Suspensory Belts, which were just the thing, it seems, for ‘night troubles’.

And then there was Dr. J. Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne, which promised to ‘assuage pain of every kind’ from toothache to cancer. Dr Gibbon, of the army medical staff in Calcutta, swore by it, according to his frank testimony. ‘Nine doses completely cured me of diarrhoea’, he crowed, though considering the principal ingredients of Chlorodyne included chloroform, tincture of cannabis and laudanum, it’s possible Dr Gibbon wasn’t so much cured of diarrhoea as not especially bothered about it any longer.

Prevention, though, was better than cure, and at the start of Victoria’s reign there were a number of medical men who believed one thing in particular needed preventing: pollution. Not the literal kind, but the sort Victorians euphemistically referred to as self-pollution.

Many physicians of high authority have maintained that two-thirds of the diseases to which the human race is liable have had their origin in certain solitary practices, declared our old friend Eugene Becklard in his Physiological Mysteries.

That figure, M. Becklard thought, was fancifully high, but he was pretty certain that consumption, impotence and lunacy were the effects of excessive fondness for one’s own company. Females were as keen on the hobby as males, he warned, making use of ‘large foreign substances to procure pleasure’.

Ah. Perhaps that’s why Mrs Beeton recommended boiling carrots for two and a quarter hours.