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Victorian Medicine–painkillers


So I “borrowed” (re: stole) this book from my stepfather years ago.  I’ve mentioned it several times in blogs, I believe The People’s Common Sense Medical Adviser in Plain English or Medicine Simplified by  R. V. Pierce, M.D.  It’s the third edition revised.  After years of thumbing through it, I finally decided to google the guy.  Wow!  He was famous!  This isn’t some obscure text by some obscure guy.  He was not only a doctor, but a state senator and a congressman.  He operated the World’s Dispensary Medical Association.  His book went into 11 editions and sold up to 2 million copies.  Cool!

 He also had a hospital:

 The book did a lot to sell his medicines, which are said to have contained mostly alcohol/opiates.  But I have the book and while he is peddling the stuff quite a bit, there is tons more information in it than just that.  It wasn’t just an advertisement. His book went into 11 editions and sold up to 2 million copies.  Cool!  Because of this, there are many different editions available on Alibris.   

For those of you who don’t want to go to the trouble of buying it, I’m going to use a few blogs to share some of the more interesting (to me) information.  Mine is the 1876 edition, for anyone wondering when this information would pertain. 


 That’s what he called ‘em anyway.  Over the course of my many years of Victorian study, I’ve often wondered how much opium they would use for illness.  We know that it was readily available at a druggist/chemist, often known to us a Laudanum.  But how much??? So here it is.  I’m quoting it verbatim.  I don’t believe that there are any copyright issues from an 1876 text.

 “Opium(Papaver Somniferum).  Opium is a stimulant, anodyne and narcotic, according to the size of the dose administered.  Dose–Of the dry powder, one-fourth, one-half to one grain; tincture (Laudanum), five to fifteen drops; camphorated tincture (Paregoric), one0half to one teaspoonful; Morphine, one-eigth to one-fourt grain; Dover’s Powder three to five grains.  ”

He mentions Morphine–Morphia–in the previous (very long) paragraph:

“When the stomach is very sensitive and will not tolerate their internal adminstration, one-sixth of a grain of Morphia can be inserted beneath the skin by means of a hypodermic syringe.  Relief is more quickly experienced, and the anodyne effect is much more lasting, than when taken into the stomach”.

Painkillers for children:

“Children can safely take only minute doses.  Their nervous system is remarkable susceptible to this class of medicines”

Finally, he seemed to understand on some level that people developed a tolerance for painkillers:

“An individual accustome to the use of Anodynes, requires a much larger dose to procure relief, than one who is not. ”




  1. Great post!

    What’s amazing is that they didn’t realize just how addictive these medicines were. Imagine giving morphine to children!

  2. Denise Eagan says:

    I know! Doesn’t it blow you mind? There weren’t ANY drug laws until the 20th century, I think 1906 or so, and that was just to require that all medicines had ingredients on the labels. It wasn’t until 1914 that drugs were “outlawed”. They were afraid of constitutional freedom issues, so they did it through taxing, I believe.

    I remember my mother in law telling me when my kids were teething that in her day they gave the babies a touch of paregoric–which I believe is also an opium derivative. That was in the 1960’s.

  3. I love this post, Dee. It is always a problem to know exactly what medicine to use. I stumbled across Sassafras root the other day that was given to someone who was congested. If you let it brew it turned into root beer. I hope you post more. I saved them…

  4. Denise Eagan says:

    If that’s what you want Paisley, then you will get it! I love this stuff. If you’ve got anything specific, let me know.

    Didn’t know that about Sassafras.

  5. carolyndee says:

    Dee, I loved this post, too. It reminded me of a sad story I read yesterday in an historical quarterly about someone in my lateral family. A man had horrid headaches, obviously migraines. The doctor gave him CHLOROFORM to relieve them. He would put some chloroform on a handkerchief and hold it to his nose until he could sleep. Unfortunately, once he didn’t cork the bottle and it apparently spilled onto the handkerchief as he slept and killed him. He was to have been married in a week. About two years later, his fiancee married his brother. The article has her letters to the man’s parents. They are so sad.
    Caroline Clemmons

  6. carolyndee says:

    I can’t stop gabbing. LOL My dad used talk about sassafras tea and sasperilla, which is root beer. My dad’s mother was ill for a long time before she died so her friend “Aunt” Kate came to help out. Kate made the kids drink sassafras tea in the spring.

    My niece who is my age had colic. My sister lived in CA, and they didn’t allow paregoric to be sold any longer. She asked my dad to send her some from Texas.

    Caroline Clemmons

  7. Denise Eagan says:

    You know I think there is something somewhere about the medicinal qualities of sasperilla. Is that made with sassafras? I’ll see if I can find it in my handy-dandy little book.

  8. Denise Eagan says:

    Okie dokie, this is what I found about Sassafras–It comes under diluents which are:

    “Any fluid which thins the blood or holds medicine in a solution.”

    followed a little further on with

    “Sassafras-pith, slippery-elm flour, flax-seed and gum arabic make good mucilaginous drinks for soothing irritation of the bowels or other parts.”

    That’s what Dr. Pierce says. I’m sure there’s other information somewhere. I swear I’ve read about this somewhere!

  9. Helaina Hinson says:

    Laudanum addiction was a big problem for soldiers during the War.

  10. Denise Eagan says:

    I’ve heard about that Helaina. It’s not such a widely known fact, though, is it? I’d like to see it hit a few more Civil War novels (romance or non-romance) because a lot of these poor guys came home addicted, which must have wreaked havoc on home life.

    I really need to do a blog post on that at some point.

  11. Zzomby says:

    Thanks for the information! For a long time searched. A class site!

  12. Denise Eagan says:

    Glad you found something useful, Zzomby! I love this stuff. Did you know that at this period in time you could also order morphine and needles from Sears catalogue? Saw it on the History channel. That just blows me away.

    No drug, of any kind, was illegal in the U.S. until 1914.

  13. […] did a post on Victorian painkillers a year ago with every intention of posting this shortly afterward.  Unfortunately, I never quite […]

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