I have a modest collection of old apothecary bottles. I’ve photographed them before and talked a little bit about them but I didn’t do much research on what they had contained and that’s what’s really most interesting about them. Plus, my brother got me a new one for Christmas this year and I have some new photo software (onOne Software’s Perfect Effects 81) that I’ve been wanting to play around with.
1: Small Mallinckrodt Bottles
These two relatively modern bottles are from Mallinckrodt Chemical. These are basically what you would find in any modern lab or compounding pharmacy.
Kaolinum. This bottle held Kaolin. It isn’t used much in compounding any more but it used to be used for stomach upset and diarrhea. It was one of the active ingredients in Kaopectate until it was replaced by attapulgite and, later, bismuth subsalycilate. Today it’s still used in manufacturing paper and ceramics like porcelain.
Potassium chloride. Potassium chloride, or KCl, is the simplest of the chemicals in my bottle collection. It’s a metal halide salt that occurs naturally as sylvite. It’s used – a lot – in medicine. We use it to treat hypokalemia which sounds super-fancy but just means low potassium. Potassium levels are crucial to nerve conduction especially in cardiac muscle so have a potassium level that’s too low – or too high – will affect your heart function. Overdosing on KCl will cause arrhythmias, cardiac arrest, and death. That’s why it’s been used in lethal injection executions. Other uses for potassium chloride include fertilizer additive, sodium-free substitute for table salt, and as a flux for gas welding aluminum.
2: Medium Bottles
I think Erin and I found these bottles in a store in Vermont. They are the more traditional style apothecary bottles with just a glass stopper rather than a screw-on cap and abbreviated latin labels. The latin makes figuring out what was in them more difficult because modern pharmaceutical references almost never use these old apthecary references to the species of the plant the chemical came from. I did my best to identify them, but there could be mistakes.
Tr. Aconiti. This bottle held Aconitum transectum. It’s an extract of the Aconitum plant. That plant is also known as devil’s helmet or monkshood which are both properly cool old apothecary names. It was used as an antipyretic2 and an analgesic although there’s no good evidence that it treats fever, pain, or anything else, really. In fact, it’s better known as a poison than as a useful medicine because of its extreme toxicity. Acotinum can cause parasthesia and numbness, muscle weakness, ventricular arrhythmias3, and the classics: nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Bonus: Aconitine is metabolized by the CYP450 enzymes in the liver so it interacts with lots of other medicines as well!
P. Arecae. This one is Pericarpium arecae. It comes from the husk of the arecea nut, also known as the betel nut. It grows in tropical Asia and parts of east Africa. People chew the nuts with betel leaf for it’s mildly stimulating effects. It causes a warming sensation and an enhanced alertness much like a cup of coffee. The problem is that it also causes cancer of the mouth, pharynx, esophagus, and stomach. And it can lead to birth defects if taken by pregnant women.
3: The Big Bottle
Canarien S. This is the one my brother gave me. It’s a beast. It’s at least twice the size of the other bottles. It was also the one I had the hardest time identifying and researching. As best as I can gather this bottle held Smilax canariensis4 which, according to a Wikipedia page I had to get translated because it’s not on the English site, is a climbing plant that’s native to Micronesia. It seems like the practice on the Canary Islands where it grows is to use it as a diuretic5 and there is some evidence that it works as well as “modern” equivalents like hydrochlorothiazide and furosemide. I couldn’t find much research on side effects, though, so I wouldn’t run to the South Pacific just yet. I guess at some point it was imported for medicinal use and it was probably replaced by our current diuretic medications.
So now I have a good idea of what was in these bottles and what the substances where used for and for some why they aren’t used anymore because they will kill you.
I did all of the “research” myself but I had some help taking the pictures from my photo assistant who insisted I take her picture as well…