When the bark is worse than the bite!


Ralph Tapping takes a look at more of the questionable treatments offered in pharmacies in days gone by, including a rather toxic snake bite remedy

Following upon my previous article on “Heath follies” of the past, I have been reminded of several other pharmaceutical misadventures.

Who can remember the ‘Snake bite kit’ that was included in first aid kits many years ago, particularly those for scouts, bushwalkers and farmers, which consisted of a sharp blade to cut across the bite and potassium permanganate crystals to insert into the wound?

Instructions included “Sucking out the poison”—with the proviso that people with decayed teeth should not do so because the poison might be ingested through the bad teeth! We now know that snake venom is transported through the lymph system and this treatment was quite useless.

Strychnine for snake bite

While on the subject of snake bite, an interesting item is on display at COMA, the medical history collection in Hobart. This item is ‘Dr Mueller’s antidote for snake bite’, prepared by MS Rome, chemist of Yackandandah.

It is dated 1891 and consists of a 1cc glass syringe with needle and a glass-stoppered bottle labelled as “Solution of Strychnine for injection as an antidote for snake bite”. There is no indication of the strength of the solution.

The directions for use include injecting the site of the bite with 1cc of the solution at half-hourly intervals until consciousness returns fully, usually requiring up to four doses.

“Dosage to be maintained by an oral dose of ten drops in a little cold water every half hour until he or she feels a little stiffness about the jaws, slight pain in the back of the neck and jerking of the arms and legs on moving them,” users are advised.

One wonders how many patients would have managed to survive the treatment, let alone the snake bite.

Some alarming substances were included in Dr Muellers Snake Bite Remedy

A startling treatment

In the early 1900s Tincture of Iodine was the main antiseptic used for cuts and scratches, but hurt terribly upon application (probably because of the high alcohol content) so was shunned for use in children in favour of the highly coloured Mercurochrome (red), Gentian Violet (purple) or Acriflavine (orange). It was something of a badge of honour for children with skinned knees to be anointed with one of these.

For many years Gentian Violet was used to treat school sores (Impetigo) which is a bacterial infection mainly on the face of children and was characterised by a heavy crust—made all the more obvious by the use of Gentian Violet.

Gentian Violet was also, rather startlingly, used as a fungicide in the treatment of oral and genital thrush, as well as being used on the newborn’s umbilical stub.

In cases of exophalus (a weakness of the abdominal wall in new-borns where the umbilical cord joins it, allowing the bowel to protrude outside the abdominal cavity), the hospital practice in those days was to paint the protruding intestine with regular application of Mercurochrome as the abdomen was gradually repaired by staged surgery over a period of several weeks.

As its name suggests, Mercurochrome contained a mercurial, so one can only imagine how much mercury was absorbed by the infant over this period! Later on they moved to using sulphadiazine cream.

The invention of Dettol in 1933 provided a more acceptable, colourless antiseptic for domestic use and the highly coloured antiseptics gradually fell out of favour.

Dangerous breastfeeding

While on the subject of babies, it was common practise to use wool fat on the nipples of nursing mothers.

Lice are a constant problem with sheep, in fact, without treatment can ruin the fleece and the use of regular insecticide is a must to keep the flock lice-free.

Post-natal practitioners came to realise that the wool fat extracted from the fleece during scouring could contain residues of the insecticides used and subsequently only highly purified lanolin was used in the nipple cream.

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