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Brief history of victorian medicine

THE BBC gave TV viewers a history lesson last night with Victorian Pharmacy, another step back through time from the makers of historical documentary, Victorian Farm.

The format still holds, as does the Shropshire site, where the first programme was filmed.

This time around, the three experts -- Ruth Goodman, Professor Nick Barber and PhD student Tom Quick -- don Victorian costumes and attempt to adapt to life as it was at the beginning of Queen Victoria's reign.

The programme opened with a cautionary spiel on 19th-century panaceas and tinctures.

Opium, we were told, was a chief ingredient in cold medicines and arsenic could be found in skin creams.

They didn't actually get around to demonstrating the modern effects of such medicines thanks to health and safety and the small matter of one of the guinea pigs (ironically) falling ill.

The pharmacy itself was faithfully outfitted with all the trappings of yore -- dusty carboys, embossed vials and pestle and mortars -- but the medicine they were practicing was much more modern.

Granted, they were hardly going to find a candidate brave (or stupid) enough to try out the "brutally efficient" dental key engineered for extractions -- or the sheep intestine condoms painstakingly made by Goodman, but it would have made for a more riveting watch if they had actually administered more of the medicines they explored.

Much of the programme was given over to salicylic acid which is extracted from the flowerbuds of meadowsweet.

This would have been a fascinating insight into pain relief in the 19th century, if salicylic acid wasn't so widely used today.

Worse, when an actor (suitably bedecked in Victorian attire) was shipped in to complain about an irritating corn on his toe, he was treated with a modernised version of the drug he needed.

It would have made for infinitely better TV, and a more authentic case study, had he been given a hit off an opium pipe and sent off on his very merry way.

Likewise, it would have been interesting to see how effective such medicines were in comparison to our modern remedies.

What the programme may have lacked in historical authenticity, though, it made up for in enthusiasm.

The presenters were clearly chosen for their passion for the subject and not their pulling power, media polish or megawatt smiles.

They were a likeable bunch whose bookish sensibilities were strangely endearing.

The three mock-pharmacists were on hand to dispense plenty of interesting facts about Victorian medical practices throughout last night's programme.

Women, for example, had their teeth extracted at their 21st birthday -- so as to spare their future husbands any further expense.

Religious leaders initially railed against chloroform being used as a painkiller during childbirth because they believed that pain was God-sent.

Debatable, though, was the suggestion that we have moved into a new era of safe, sensible and regulated pharmacies and away from the spurious lotions and potions of yesteryear.

In 100 years' time, we'll be similarly aghast at the fact that people could be injected with the Botulinum toxin at their local Boots; that millions of people were addicted to certain codeine-based, over-the-counter painkillers and entire shelves were given over to creams that turned women a peculiar shade of orange.

Victorian Pharmacy provided an interesting glimpse at a different era from a different angle, but it didn't justify an hour-long slot, particularly when its presenters weren't willing to step entirely into the shoes of their forefathers.

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