The Victory Point Medicine Chest

Absences and presences. So much of what we know about the fate of the Franklin Expedition has been conjectured from the uncertain space between the physical traces that remain and all that has vanished, gone unseen, or never existed at all. The dearth of messages deposited along the expedition’s route, the lack of marked grave sites for Franklin or other officers, the very absence of the ships themselves until 2014: all of these voids of knowledge have made piecing together the circumstances of the expedition’s demise an exercise in speculation.

Yet what remains present is often as mysterious as what is lost. The physical traces are themselves marked by absences, or by characteristics that – rather than resolving questions – pose new ones. A ship’s boat found on the shore of Erebus Bay testifies to abandonment and a wearisome overland (or over ice) trek, but its northeast orientation and its oddly impractical contents don’t fit neatly into the established narrative. A message in a cairn supplies vital information that fills in only part of the picture, leaving the rest to conjecture.

The relics speak, or seem to. But are we correctly interpreting what they say? And have we “listened” attentively enough to all that they might be able to communicate?

One of the most intriguing physical traces of the expedition is a small medicine chest, discovered by Lt. William Hobson in May 1859. Sledging along the northern and western coasts of King William Island as his captain, Frances Leopold McClintock, tackled the eastern and southern shores, Hobson found the chest at Victory Point, part of a collection of material discarded around the cairn where the famous message was stowed. McClintock, reaching the site on June 2, described the chest as “a small case of selected medicines containing about twenty-four phials, the contents in a wonderful state of preservation.”

Medicine Chest - National Maritime Museum
©️National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

Richard Cyriax examined the chest and its contents and published an article about his observations in 1947 in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. Cyriax’s purpose was to try and ascertain if the amount of medication remaining in each bottle might indicate which had been most frequently used and, in turn, suggest any maladies rampant among the crews. Curiously, Cyriax began his investigation with the assumption that all of the bottles in the chest had been full or close to full at the time when the ships were abandoned, and that any decrease in their contents had occurred during the trek to Victory Point, or in the short interval between the expedition’s arrival at Victory Point and the beginning of their journey to the south. He reasoned that “no useful purpose would have been served by taking empty or partially emptied bottles of medicine.” Judging by the notoriously impractical objects found in the ship’s boat which Hobson discovered on the west coat of the island later in his sledge journey, however, the possibility of a medicine chest with a few empty bottles being taken away from the ships doesn’t seem entirely out of the question.

Regardless of when the medications might have been used, the amounts remaining in the bottles could not definitively confirm the presence of scurvy in the expedition, nor clearly point to any other malady. Cyriax’s observations are nonetheless valuable in revealing the types of medications taken on such voyages, hinting as they do at the health conditions men in the Royal Navy commonly faced. I decided to try and identify each of the compounds the chest contained, and learn a little more about the type of afflictions they were commonly used to treat.

As Cyriax was writing for a medical audience, he didn’t feel the need to describe all of the medications contained in the chest, but readers today are unlikely to recognize the abbreviated names used in both Cyriax’s paper and McClintock’s brief inventory. At the time of Cyriax’s examination, all but two of the bottles retained their original labels which gave the name of each drug using the nomenclature (and associated preparation) of the official pharmacopoeias of London, Edinburgh, or Dublin.

The chest itself, described by Cyriax as measuring 14 in. by 13 in., is held by the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, and contains today – as it did in both McClintock’s and Cyriax’s times – twenty-four bottles. Twenty-three of the bottles are made of clear glass, one of green glass, and all but two contain some remnant of their original contents. One bottle, identified by McClintock as “Spirit Rect.” (the label was still attached to the bottle in his time, though it has now been lost), was empty when the chest was discovered; another, marked “Submr. Hyd.,” was broken when found by Hobson and probably emptied by him on the spot.

The chest contained the following medications (given in the same order as they were listed by Cyriax):

“Spirit Rect.”Spiritus Rectificatus. Rectified spirit, or alcohol diluted with water. In the British Pharmacopoeia it consisted of 16% water. It was used internally as a stimulant and, with further dilution, applied externally to muscle injuries like sprains.

“Ipecac. R. Pulv.” – Ipecac powder. The root of the Cephaelis Ipecacuauha plant, ipecac was used in small doses as an expectorant for coughs and congestion (referred to at the time as catarrh), while in larger doses it was used as an emetic to induce vomiting.

“Ol. Olive” – Olive oil. Used internally as a mild laxative and externally in ointments for burns and eczema.

“Mur. Hyd.”Muriate Hydrargyum. Chloride of mercury, also known as corrosive sublimate. Chiefly used in the treatment of syphilis, but also in ointments for skin conditions and as a gargle for sore throats.

“Ipecac P. Co.”Ipecacuanhæ Comp. Compound powder of ipecac. This particular compound combined ipecac with opium and potash and was marketed as Dover’s Powder, a medication used in the treatment of colds, dysentery, and diarrhea.

“Tinct. Opii Camph”Tinctura Camphoræ Cum Opio. Camphorated tincture of opium. The sedative, antispasmodic effects of camphor, combined with the pain-killing qualities of opium, were employed to ease coughing associated with conditions like bronchitis and tuberculosis.

“Tinct. Tolut.”Tinctura Tolutana. Tincture of Tolu was a yellowish liquid, prepared by dissolving balsam of Tolu in rectified spirit. Balsalm of Tolu was a hard resin extracted from the trunk of the Myrospermum Toluiferum, or South American balsalm, tree. It was used as an expectorant for coughs and congestion. (The chest contains two bottles of this tincture).

“Vin. Sem. Colch.”Vinum Seminis Colchici. Wine of colchicum seeds, taken from the Colchicum autumnale (Autumn crocus or meadow saffron) plant. The seeds were steeped in sherry wine to create the preparation, which was used in cases of gout and rheumatism to ease pain and inflammation.

“Scammon. Pulv.” – Scammony powder. A resin obtained from the root of the Convolvulus Scammonia plant, it was employed as a powerful purgative and laxative, often given with calomel (subchloride of mercury: see below), another purgative.

“Jalap R. Pulv.” – Jalap powder. A yellowish-gray powder derived from the root of the Exogonium purga plant, it was used as a potent laxative, especially in cases of dropsy.

“Zingib. R. Pulv.” – Ginger powder, a stimulant and tonic for stomach ailments such as pains, nausea, and diarrhea. Also used as a tea to treat colds.

“Liq. Ammon. Fort.”Ammoniæ Liquor Fortior. Strong solution of ammonia. When mixed with water, the liquor was used internally as a stimulant in treating cases of bronchitis, pneumonia, headache, and stomach upset. Combined with olive oil, it was used externally as a liniment for stiff or painful joints.

“Submur. Hyd.”Hydrargyri Submurias. Subchloride of mercury, a synonym for calomel. This powder was used to promote the expulsion of bile, as well as a laxative and anti-inflammatory. It was a common treatment for syphilis, and was employed in ointments to treat various skin diseases.

“Ol. Caryoph” – Oil of cloves. A stimulant, used to aid digestion and promote the effectiveness of laxatives. Applied externally to alleviate the pain of toothaches.

“Ol. Menth. Pip.”Menthæ Piperitæ Oleum. Oil of peppermint. A stimulant digestive aid, used to relieve stomach pains and nausea.

“Quinine Disulph.” – Quinine, derived from cinchona bark, was commonly used to treat malaria. A tonic for fevers, it was also employed in chronic cases of diarrhea, congestion, and neuralgia.

“Hydrarg. Nit. Oxyd.”Hydrargyrum Oxydulatum Nitricum. Nitrate of mercury. A stimulant, used to treat skin conditions such as syphilitic ulcers.

“Pulv. Greg.” – The label on this bottle possibly referred to Dr. Gregory’s Powder, a medication comprised of rhubarb, magnesia, and ginger. (Cyriax noted the strong smell of rhubarb emanating from the broken bottle, which was nonetheless still full of powder.) This powder was used as a purgative for stomach complaints, dysentery, and typhoid.

“Magnes. Carb.”Magnesiæ Carbonas. Carbonate of Magnesia. A powder used as an antacid and mild laxative.

“Camphor” – Camphor is an oil extracted from the wood of the Laurus Camphora, or camphor, tree. It was used as a sedative to relieve nervousness and, in large doses, induce sleep. Applied externally in liniment form, it was a stimulant used in rheumatism and neuralgia.

“Tr. Opii.” – Tincture of Opium. Opium added to proof spirit, given to reduce pain and induce sleep. This solution was found to act more quickly than opium given straight.

In the second part of this post, I’ll discuss what these medications – and the medicine chest itself – might be able to tell us about the fate of the Franklin Expedition.

Sources

Cyriax RJ. A HISTORIC MEDICINE CHEST. Canadian Medical Association Journal. 1947;57(3):295-300. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1590808/

McClintock, Francis Leopold, Sir. The Voyage of the ‘Fox’ in the Arctic Seas: A Narrative of the Discovery of the Fate of Sir John Franklin and His Companions. London, John Murray, 1859. Archive.org, https://archive.org/details/voyageoffoxinarc00mcli_0.

Squire, Peter Wyatt, Sir. A Companion to the British Pharmacopoeia: Comparing the Strength of the Various Preparations with Those of the London, Edinburgh, and Dublin, United States and Other Foreign Pharmacopoeias, with Practical Hints on Prescribing. 3rd ed., Edinburgh, Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, 1866. Archive.org, https://archive.org/details/b21701283.

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