Old remedy effectiveBMJ 1998; 316 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.316.7139.1240 (Published 18 April 1998) Cite this as: BMJ 1998;316:1240
On a Shetland island, the home of hardy people, it was surprising to find that a runny nose and a cough meant that a visit to the doctor was required. And this was 40 years ago when life was less comfortable than today, when television was hardly known, and when people visited each other of an evening to talk and drink “a peerie glass o' the hame brew.”
I was covering the period between the departure of the island's only doctor and the arrival of his successor. It was a wonderful six weeks among wonderful people. Their attitude to the common cold, though, was a bore. Mr X came to the surgery requesting a bottle of medicine for his cough. Explanation of the self limiting nature of his illness was treated with contempt. This being a dispensing practice I handed him some proprietary cough mixture from the big cupboard. No good. In two days he was back, seeking something more effective. My advice to hang on was again abruptly treated as nonsense and he went away with something of a different colour. Again, no good. It was too soon to consider investigating his cough, and as he was as determined as ever to take medicine I turned yet again to the cornucopia in the wall. There were now no more cough mixtures. There were, however, many big stock bottles of coloured glass containing ancient remedies with Latin names, and wedged among them, an out of date National Formulary. I sent Mr X home, promising to see if I could concoct something for him.
Mist Morph et Ipecac, with another now forgotten ingredient, was the result, the whole being dignified by the suffix “BPC.” I made this up, using strange little measuring glasses graduated in outdated units of measurement. I poured it into a bottle, stuck a cork in it, and labelled it with the instructions. It is with pride that I recall that I then took a dose of this concoction, believing that if I survived it he would. Mr X received this medicine and I heard no more till he returned four weeks later to have a loose tooth removed. This gave much less trouble than his cough but to the latter there was to be a sequel.
I took a phone call from an isolated cottage at the south end of the island. “Hello,” a woman said, “I don't want you to come down but I've got a terrible cough and I just wondered if you would give the Postie a bottle of that medicine you made for Mr X to bring down to me. He says it's the same one that old Dr S used to make 30 years ago.”
It is said that the only thing that distinguishes man from the lower animals is man's desire to take medicine. Especially it seems old medicines, and even in Shetland.
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