Behind the scenes: BBC filming ‘Addicted to pleasure’ at the RPS Museum

By John Betts, RPS Museum Officer

Earlier this year a BBC production team spent 2 days filming our current controlled drugs display at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Museum, for the ‘Addicted to Pleasure’ series.

Looking after a historical collection of controlled drugs always throws up a number of issues, and working with the BBC filming objects from our current Developing Treatments – Controlled Drugs display was no exception! Originally the production team wanted to film the objects in a historical setting more in keeping with the 19th century; the period the programme focuses on. However Home Office controlled drugs licences strictly restrict the transportation or supply of controlled drugs. In the end, with a bit of set dressing and careful lighting, the BBC was happy to film the objects at the museum.

Another restriction was that for legal and health and safety reasons I had to be with the controlled drugs being filmed at all times, and never let them out of my sight! However, this had the benefit of me being to watch the filming taking place.

Filmed in front of objects from the controlled drugs display; the actor Brian Cox, who is presenting the series, discussed with Mike Jay, author of the book ‘High Society’, the reasons why so many medicines in the 19th century contained opiates. Stressing the fact that it is easy to judge past generations in hindsight, they highlighted the reason why so many medicines of the period contained opiates was simply because it was the best science had to offer at the time. It is important to remember that this was a time before the discovery of aspirin, paracetamol, and ibuprofen – so opiates were the most effective way to relieve pain.

Perhaps most shocking topic covered was the fact that many medicines for children also contained opiates – something most mothers would not have been aware of since, apart from a few exceptions, prior to the 20th century ingredients didn’t have to be listed on the preparations. A famous example is Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup which was formulated for restless or teething babies and small infants. From the late 1860s up until the early 1900s, there were numerous cases of babies becoming addicted to and, on occasions, dying from use of the syrup. Morphine was not completely removed from the syrup’s formula until 1909 in the UK and 1915 in the US.

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society Museum’s Drugs for Pleasure, Drugs for Pain display explores how controlled substances such as cannabis, coca, cocaine, opium, morphine, and heroin have been viewed and used throughout history as pharmaceutical treatments.

Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup   
Manufactured by Curtis and Perkins, New York, 1830s -1938
These bottles are later examples of the syrup, when it no longer contained morphine
Ball of Opium Resin
Manufactured in India, around 1880-1920
Opium resin was prepared into balls prior to being exported around the world.