Recreating History: Victorian Pharmacy

I have spent the past month enthralled with my Monday night TV options: TVO (the public television channel in Ontario) has been airing the 4-part series “Victorian Pharmacy” that originally aired on the BBC this past summer.

The series is an historical documentary that traces the history of the pharmacy through the Victorian era (each episode is set at a progressively later date). Set at Blists Hill Victorian Town in Shropshire, it stars domestic historian Ruth Goodman, professor at the School of Pharmacy Nick Barber, and PhD student Tom Quick. Dr. Goodman has participated in several similar projects including Tales from the Green Valley (everyday life on a farm in Wales, circa 1620), Edwardian Farm, Victorian Farm, and Victorian Farm Christmas.

A quick synopsis: In episode one, set in 1837, the group explored some early treatments: including the use of leeches, an oil compound made of earthworm, the bronchial kettle, and the discovery of Indian tonic water. Episode two progressed to the mid-nineteenth century and explored “cure-alls” and disinfectants. Episode three faced the new regulations that were established for pharmacists in 1868 and portrayed the cast taking the examinations (which included the practical test of creating a suppository) – they also discussed the loophole in the legislation that allowed women to emerge in the developing field of pharmaceuticals. Finally, episode four, set at the end of the Victorian era, featured new techniques in dentistry (including a foot-pedal drill), the creation of condoms out of sheep intestines, and the latest developments in photography. What made Victorian Pharmacy so engaging, to me at least, was not only the discussion of various developments in the history of the pharmacy and medical treatments, but that the cast prepared and tried out these treatments.

I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to recreate psychology’s early labs – perhaps looking first to Wilhelm Wundt’s lab and then moving to the United States to compare how their labs were both similar and different. We may not have an open air museum like Blists Hill to draw on, but there is still a fair amount of apparatus hanging around from the “Brass & Glass” era with enough photos to help recreate what the labs would have looked like…..

If you missed the original broadcast of Victorian Pharmacy on the BBC or the re-airing on TVO, the episodes are available on TVO’s website: Episode OneEpisode TwoEpisode ThreeEpisode Four.

About Jennifer Bazar

Jennifer Bazar is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto and Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care. Her research focuses on the history of psychiatric institutionalization.