By Mark Yokoyama
If you lived in St. Martin in the 1800s, hopefully you didn’t get sick very often. For that matter, if you lived in many places in the 1800s, the odds of getting good medical treatment were pretty slim. A visit to the doctor could easily leave you worse off than you were.
In a little brown notebook full of 19th century medical cures used on St. Martin, we encounter a number of medicinal substances used at the time. Many of them are recorded in a list of medicines ordered from New York by Lucas Percival.
One of the first medicines on the list is corrosive sublimate. If you think it sounds bad, you are right. It is a white, crystalline substance made of mercury and chlorine. Mercury itself is very toxic, but this particular preparation is also corrosive. It burned the mouth, throat, stomach and intestines. In large doses, it caused kidney failure and death. It was such a dangerous poison that it was used to murder people.
Also on the list was calomel. Calomel is also made of mercury and chloride. Thankfully, it wouldn’t burn you. But it would still give you mercury poisoning. It was used to make people vomit or evacuate their bowels, and it worked because it was poison.
Sugar of lead was on the shopping list, too. Lead acetate is sweet, and was used as a sweetener and a medicine. But we don’t use it today because lead is toxic. Also on the list was tartar emetic, which contains antimony. Its effects are similar to arsenic poisoning.
By comparison, other items on the list were not nearly so bad. Flowers of sulphur act as a fungicide and may have some uses. Opium can be abused, but we still use its active ingredient – morphine – as a pain reliever. Snake oil has become a term for fake medicine, but at least it didn’t do anything, which is better than can be said for corrosive sublimate.
Rounding out the shopping list was a variety of plants and plant preparations: rhubarb, chamomile, camphor, sassafras, sarsaparilla, jalap, lavender and more. It is hard to say if they were used effectively, but most of these plants have some medicinal properties. Better still, they aren’t deadly poisons.
Although medical science wasn’t much of a science back then, western doctors had adopted some plant cures. Most of these came from other parts of the world with more developed plant medicine traditions. Some of the medicinal recipes in this book also combine purchased medicines with local plants. Perhaps European doctors on St. Martin were learning plant medicine from St. Martiners of African descent – and hopefully using that knowledge to provide better care.
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