21 Feb, 12 | by James Poskett
You’re on board a small British merchant ship in the English Channel and you start to feel very ill. There’s no doctor on board. What do you do? If the year is 1844, you’re in luck. The Government has recently made it compulsory for all merchant vessels to carry medicines, to be kept in a small wooden chest. So open up, take a swig of the laudanum, and relax.
But before you drift off into an opiate-induced stupor, take a moment to consider the history of how a very particular set of drugs ended up on every British merchant ship. It’s a topic that started to interest me as I stumbled upon a collection of tiny pamphlets, each designed to be slipped inside one of the drawers of the ship’s medicine chest. With titles such as The Guide-Book to the Government Medicine Chest, they list the medicines to be taken aboard along with directions for use. Well before anything resembling the National Health Service, let alone the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, we have a government mandate to stock certain medicines. So, these chests, along with the accompanying pamphlets, provide a fantastic opportunity to study the early history of public health and the regulation of drugs.