Picture it…

Chemistry


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What’s in a medicine cabinet?

The medicine cabinet as it was found. It stands about 4 feet in height.

The medicine cabinet as it was found. It stands about 4 feet in height.

Well, if the cabinet was stocked during the 1800’s and early 1900’s then all sorts of strange and mysterious looking objects, filled with unusual and potentially dangerous chemicals. Such cabinet was uncovered at Tyntesfield about five years ago. Staff from the National Trust and University of Bristol recently teamed up to make the fascinating cabinet safe for the public. Here we present some of the initial findings and a taste (metaphorically!) of a set of new posts in the Picture It… pipeline.

1) Tyntesfield is a Victorian mansion created by William Gibbs that has been owned by the National Trust since 2002 (visit http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/tyntesfield/ for more information). It is situated just on the outskirts of Bristol, and being near neighbours, the School of Chemistry agreed to help the staff sort through the bottles, identify chemicals contained and dispose of any hazardous substances.

Just looking through the list of the cabinets contents, gave the Bristol staff food for thought – solutions of nitrous ether, phosphoric acid and tincture of belladonna posed some interesting health and safety questions. So, in July, Tony Rodgers, Safety Officer, and Jenny Slaughter, Teaching Laboratory Fellow, headed out in the Bristol ChemLabS van to lend a hand to the Tyntesfield staff.

The cabinet hard only rarely been opened since its “discovery” in 2007, many of the bottles, purchased in the late 1800s and early 1900s, had leaked and so the Bristol staff advised how to clean the chemical residues and remove the odd stuck bottle from the cabinet, using a weak alcohol/water mixture and careful mopping (wearing gloves, of course!). Then the job of identifying those bottles which needed attention began in earnest.

Jenny Slaughter, Tony Rogers and National Trust volunteer, Sue Weston, begin inspecting the numerous carefully wrapped bottles.

Jenny Slaughter, Tony Rogers and National Trust volunteer, Sue Weston, begin inspecting the numerous carefully wrapped bottles.

There were some truly beautifully crafted pieces of glassware contained within the cabinet and Tyntesfield staff and volunteers had done an incredible amount of work, documenting, photographing and individually wrapping each bottle, with utmost diligence and care.

An appropriately gloved hand holding a bottle with a beautifully hand written label.

An appropriately gloved hand holding a bottle with a beautifully hand written label.

The National Trust was understandably eager for the cabinet and its contents to be on show for the public as quickly as possible, however some of the bottles contained dangerous or unidentified chemicals. So these were packaged up and transported back to the School of Chemistry, for further attention, in a safe environment.

The bottles are wrapped and sealed and placed in a bed of vermiculite; the vermiculite holds the bottles in place and also acts as an absorbent to mop up spillages.

The bottles are wrapped and sealed and placed in a bed of vermiculite; the vermiculite holds the bottles in place and also acts as an absorbent to mop up spillages.

2) Once the bottles arrived at the School, the staff started the process of cleaning and, where necessary, disposing of the contents. It was clear that the Victorian household had a favourite cure for aches and pains, as many preparations of morphine and cocaine were amongst some of the first bottles to be cleaned and scrubbed, ready for return.

An example of a carefully labelled and embossed bottle cork.

An example of a carefully labelled and embossed bottle cork.

Cleaning has so far revealed, delicate and beautiful corks. Tony has also been able to reveal the colours of glass and embossed names and measures.

The mysterious bottle of paint on “poison”.

The mysterious bottle of paint on “poison”.

As well as one bottle marked “poison” which has a brush attached to the lid, presumably for following the instructions on the label to “paint as necessary” (what poison it is and what it was originally for is currently not clear).

Tony is currently working on many of the natural cures, extractions of poppy, gentian and other plants, renowned for their healing properties. Whilst these solutions don’t pose a hazard to the public, the challenge here is finding suitable solutions which mimic the original colour and viscosity of the solutions, most of which have turned a dull brown after so many years in storage. Tea might make good replacement for a morphine based “cough syrup” but needs some glycerine in to make thick, like the original preparation.

A light blue bottle, embossed with the name of the contents as well as markers for measures.

A light blue bottle, embossed with the name of the contents as well as markers for measures.

Whilst some lids and corks have proved relatively easy to remove others remain stuck in place. Tony has had to resort to syringing through corks to remove solutions and then repeating washings with water to remove residual solid. Whilst other bottles such as “Acid Hydrocyanic Dil. BP” (dilute hydrocyanic acid) – have required being sonicated upside down in attempt to remove stubborn glass stoppers – with a container underneath to catch and contain the less than healthy contents.

3) Fantastic instructions on bottle of carbolic acid (more familiar to the modern chemist as phenol) include details of chemical properties but also how to use it as a preparation for bandages, as a “gargle” or for tooth ache. Evidently considered a remedy for various ailments all at the time, phenol is now known to be both toxic and carcinogenic – and will be treated with caution when it comes to cleaning and restoring this bottle.

One of the numerous bottles of carbolic acid, a Victorian cure-all…?

One of the numerous bottles of carbolic acid, a Victorian cure-all…?

Chemicals, familiar to the chemist in the lab but seemingly out of place in a medicine cabinet include lead nitrate, bismuth compounds and calomel (mercury), some of which present beautiful crystals and interesting colours. For example, “Nitrate of Lead” (lead nitrate), was originally bought as a solution but the liquid has evaporated over time, leaving fine, white needle crystals in the more concentrated solution.

A preparation of Goulard’s extract, a combination of lead acetate and lead oxide, commonly used as an astringent in the 18th century, certainly wouldn’t be recommended by a modern pharmacist. Yet, other preparations, such as croton oil, whilst known to be poisonous, are still in use today. Croton oil is combined with other compounds in modern preparations to produce chemical peels advertised for skin rejuvenation.

Many of the bottles have now been cleaned and are being returned to the National Trust staff at Tyntesfield. The collection is on display at Tyntesfield House, where you will be able to go and have a look at least at some of the intriguing collection.

However, some of the more trickier cleaning and restoring will continue to pose an interesting and certainly different challenge for the University of Bristol staff. Alongside the exciting task of trying to reveal the contents of the unlabelled or illegible bottles; already samples of these Victorian preparations have been submitted for analysis using modern techniques such as GC (gas chromatography) and MS (mass spectrometry).

Teams of undergraduates, postgraduate and academic staff, are delving into the history and chemistry of some of these intriguing compounds. What place did, potassium cyanide, a highly poisonous compound, have in Victorian medicine? Was it used as a disinfectant or did it perform an altogether more sinister function? Who would take a sip of Vinium Antimoniale and what ails did they hope it might relieve? And what is the chemistry of medicines such as “Goulard’s extract of lead”? It is these and other questions which staff and students at the School of Chemistry are currently investigating.

So watch this space for further revelations from the Victorian medicine cupboard….

Contributors: Tony Rogers (cleaning, expertise, interest and transport), Luc Foley (words and editing), Jenny Slaughter (words, editing and photos).

Our thanks to the National Trust, staff and volunteers, at Tyntesfield, for allowing us to work with them on such an interesting and exciting project.