Uncovering hidden histories at the RPS Museum

by Matthew Johnston, RPS Museum

Part of our work here at the RPS Museum includes researching various aspects of pharmacy history so we can enrich our displays, tours and articles, especially those areas that are currently under-represented in the museum.

A recent focus of this research has been to uncover more stories relating to BAME communities. This isn’t an easy task as historical registers of pharmacists did not record information relating to ethnicity. In addition to this lack of documentary evidence, there is little visual material available, particularly in the early years of the Society before the widespread introduction of photography.

But we didn’t let that stop us. When we look through the records, we can see tantalising glimpses of stories that we can use as a starting point for our research. The earliest specific reference we have found in the Society’s archive is the arrival of the first black African student at the School of Pharmacy in 1847, as noted in the report of the Annual General Meeting of May 1848, which reflects the attitudes of the time:

It is also gratifying to find that some have come from distant countries, and one of these, an intelligent African, is probably the first native of that soil who will apply a knowledge of Chemistry acquired in an English School, with the view of promoting the arts of civilization among his colored brethren.”

But who was this student? Frustratingly he isn’t named, but he may have been Joseph Mailloux. The Society published its first list of ‘Foreign Life Members’ in the Pharmaceutical Journal in 1856 and Joseph is listed as having been admitted to membership in 1847. He was based in Mauritius, which at that time was a British colony. His certificate number of 28 shows that he took and passed one of the Society’s exams, so would have been studying at the School around the time referred to in the above report.

Despite poring over the various resources available to us, we couldn’t find out much more about Joseph Mailloux. He remains on the Society’s register until 1877, so seems to have had a 30-year career. An annotation in the Registrar’s copy of the register confirms that his removal was because he had died, but no obituary was published in either the Pharmaceutical Journal or the Chemist and Druggist, a familiar story with international members of the Society at this time.

There is still a lot of work to do in terms of including more marginalised voices in the museum. Hopefully this blog has shown that there are stories to be told and histories to be revealed – we just need to keep on digging to find them and highlight diversity in the profession.

Salbutamol – landmark asthma treatment

by John Betts, Keeper of the RPS Museum

2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark asthma treatment Salbutamol becoming commercially available in the UK. Salbutamol is still widely used today to relieve symptoms of asthma and COPD such as coughing, wheezing and feeling breathless. It works by relaxing the muscles of the airways into the lungs, making it easier to breathe.

Launched in 1969 with the brand name Ventolin, Salbutamol revolutionised the treatment of bronchial asthma.

It treated bronchospasm far more effectively compared with previous bronchodilators and had fewer side effects.

To understand how much of a breakthrough Salbutamol was in the treatment of asthma, it’s first worth comparing it to the drugs that were used to treat asthma before 1969.

One of the main drugs used for treating asthma in the mid-1960s was isoprenaline. This is a powerful bronchodilator and was used to relieve bronchospasm. However, the side effects include a sudden increased heart rate. Between 1963 and 1968 in the UK there was an increase in deaths among people using isoprenaline to treat asthma. This was attributed to overdose due to both excessive use of the aerosols and the high dosage they dispensed.

In the mid-1960s the mortality rate for asthma sufferers had risen to over 2,000 deaths a year. An effective bronchodilator was desperately needed that did not stimulate the heart or affect blood pressure.

Salbutamol was discovered in 1966 by a research team at Allen and Hanburys (a subsidiary of Glaxo). Salbutamol was the first drug that selectively targeted specific receptors in the lungs, inhibiting the production of proteins needed to produce muscle contractions. It works by relaxing the smooth muscle of the airways, opening them up and so lessening or preventing an asthma attack. Not only was Salbutamol a good bronchodilator, it lasted longer than isoprenaline, and inhalation caused fewer side effects.

In addition to the effectiveness of the drug, the method of administration itself was also revolutionary. The Ventolin inhaler was designed to ensure metered aerosol doses of Salbutamol were inhaled straight into the patient’s lungs.

The drug was an instant success.

The only real deficiency of Salbutamol was its short duration of action; at 4 hours it couldn’t prevent night-time asthma attacks. In response to this the pharmaceutical manufacturer Glaxo aimed to develop a longer acting drug. The result of their research was Salmeterol. Launched in 1990 with the brand name Serevent, it had a 12-hour duration of action.

50 years on Salbutamol is still on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines; a testament to the major role it continues to play in the treatment of asthma. 

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Women in early pharmacy

By Matthew Johnston, RPS Museum

“There is an impression that women are something new in pharmacy, but nothing could be further from the truth.”

These were Jean Kennedy Irvine’s words on her election as the first woman President of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society in 1947.

Medieval monasteries

In her speech, Jean also mentioned the early beginnings of community pharmacy in the medieval monasteries, where residents would grow medicinal plants to treat themselves and local people.

One of the oldest items on display in the RPS Museum is a stone mortar from a Spanish nunnery (AD 410-1500), used for preparing medicines. The Hanbury Collection of the RPS Library also contains a later copy of the ‘Physica’, a work by St Hildegard, Abbess of Bingen. Originally written in the 1100s, it outlines the medicinal properties of various drugs obtained from the natural world. Read more Women in early pharmacy

World AIDS Day 2018: When a friend has AIDS

by John Betts, RPS Museum, Keeper of the Museum Collections

The history of pharmacy is usually thought of in terms of drug development and its ability to transform patient’s lives. Rarely do museums have an object in their collection that communicates what it was like to live with a life-threatening illness before there were any effective treatments.

The RPS Museum has a leaflet published by GMHC (Gay Men’s Health Crisis) in 1984, at the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which does just that.

When A Friend Has AIDS provides advice to the friends of people living with AIDS on how they can offer them support.

Written with a great deal of compassion, it gives a moving insight into what living with HIV/AIDS was like at this time, from both the patient’s and friend’s point of view. Reading it never fails to move me to tears. Read more World AIDS Day 2018: When a friend has AIDS

Edward Frank Harrison – a pharmacy war hero

by Matthew Johnston, RPS Museum

If asked to list influential figures in the history of the First World War, few would probably know the name of Edward Frank Harrison. But it was Harrison who was responsible for saving the lives of thousands of Allied soldiers thanks to his work to combat the threat of chemical warfare.

Born in 1869, Harrison began his career as an apprentice pharmacist in North London aged 14. He was awarded the Pharmaceutical Society’s Jacob Bell Scholarship and won prizes in the subjects of chemistry, botany, and materia medica. He passed both the Minor and Major examinations at the Society’s School of Pharmacy and registered as a pharmacist in 1891. Read more Edward Frank Harrison – a pharmacy war hero

The history of cosmetics – unwrapped

By Matthew Johnston, RPS Museum

‘Removes blotches,’ ‘clears the complexion,’ ‘removes freckles, pimples, and all spots.’

Turn on your TV or open a magazine and you might see these words advertising the latest beauty product, but in fact they come from the Roman writer Pliny the Elder’s description of a substance called crocodilea – the dung or intestinal contents of a crocodile.

As well as its uses in skincare it was recommended as an eye salve, taken internally for epilepsy, and as a pessary for stimulating menstrual flow.

Partnerships
In 2016 the RPS Museum became a partner in a research project on ancient skincare, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Science in Culture strand. Now, as the study reaches its conclusion, the team – including researchers from the Universities of Oxford, Glasgow and Keele – are going to showcase some of the findings in a series of events at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society on 15th and 16th  February. Read more The history of cosmetics – unwrapped

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

The fascinating relationship between pharmacy and smoking

By John Betts, Royal Pharmaceutical Society Museum Officer

Given the scientific knowledge we now have about the harmful effects of smoking on health it seems unbelievable that in the past medical professionals viewed smoking as an effective and legitimate medicinal treatment. One of my father’s aunts, who regularly suffered from coughs and sore throats, was told by her doctor in the 1930s to take up smoking to toughen up her throat!

The fascinating, and at times contradictory, relationship between pharmacy and smoking inspired me to curate new Developing Treatments exhibition ‘Going Up in Smoke’ – Smoking and Pharmacy. Read more The fascinating relationship between pharmacy and smoking