Published: 25 March 2010
by DAN CARRIER
GOT dodgy eyesight? Try oil of swallow. Short of breath? How about a tincture of fox’s lungs?
Such cures may sound like a witch’s brew that could potentially do you more harm than good – but, as a new exhibition at Regent’s Park’s Royal College of Physicians shows, these were everyday treatments available for Londoners in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Leading haematologist consultant Professor Victor Hoffbrand, who works at the Royal Free Hospital, collects antique apothecary jars – ceramic containers that held healing potions in an age when medical science and pharmacy was in its infancy.
Now his collection – the largest private one of its kind in the world – is on permanent display at the college.
Among the jars – all beautifully decorated as a means of selling what they contained to the sick and hypochondriac – are such tinctures as oil of earthworms, to help you pass urine.
Professor Hoffbrand’s collection, which has taken 30 years to put together, stemmed from a love of antiques and an interest in medical history. “My wife and I liked antique furniture rather than modern furniture and I’d got some interest in apothecary boxes,” he said. “The interest in antiques focused on medical antiques because they were relevant to my career. Though I was interested in the past in the areas I was doing research – like folic acid and had the original books of Lucy Wills who had discovered folic acid because she was at the Royal Free and left her books.”
The jars themselves hold detailed information about the development of medical science. “I had several interests in them,” he explained: “Where they were made? Who were they made for? What were the contents?”
Added to this is the fact the professor’s collection is beautiful. On many of the jars there are images of songbirds, cherubs with trumpets, peacocks and angels.
Professor Hoffbrand has scoured antique markets, auctions, and junk shops to add to his collection. It is a pastime that fills him with joy. As he put it: “I’m not a drug addict, I’m a drug jar addict.”
• The exhibition is open from 10am-5pm each day at the Royal College of Physicians, 11 Saint Andrew’s Place, NW1, 020 7935 1174