A little-known pharmaceutical museum near the Tower of London is good for what ails you.
Have you ever visited a museum that deals in drugs?
No, not like that. The Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) Museum is all about the discovery and preparation of medical drugs. Though, as I found, the line can be a blurry one.
London does well for medical museums. We've got the recently revamped Hunterian, the always enlightening Wellcome Collection on Euston Road, and the stonking great Medicine Galleries at the Science Museum. Sprinkled among them are a collection of smaller, professionally focussed museums, like the one for eye-sight, or the one for teeth. While many of these smaller museums are by appointment only, the RPS is happy for you to just wander in whenever you like (during opening hours of Mon-Fri, 9-5). And you should.
You'll find the RPS's modern, purpose-built headquarters on East Smithfield, just north of St Katharine Docks. You can't miss the entrance. It's lined with dozens of ornamental vases. Well, that's what it looks like anyway. On closer inspection, they turn out to be pre-19th century medical storage jars made from English delftware — once a common sight behind the apothecary counter. These ghosts of pharmacy past set the scene neatly for what's to come.
The main museum fills much of the ground floor, easily accessed just beyond the reception. It's traditional in scope, setting out a history of pharmaceutical practice in a series of glass cabinets. Some of these relate to a more credulous age, when druggists would prescribe bear grease for baldness (because bears are hairy), or powdered human skull for epilepsy (because... who knows?). Much of the museum, though, tells a more scientific story. If you've ever popped a pill for a headache or rubbed Bonjela into your gums, then you've got the pharmacists to thank.
Perhaps the most fun aspect of the museum is to browse the packaging and marvel at how people lived in another age. Would you run Dr Scott's Electric Hair Brush through your thinning locks? Tempted by Sir Hiram "I invented the machine gun" Maxim's menthol inhaler? I'd certainly have given T.E. Bristow & Co's cherry toothpaste a go, right up to the point where I learned that it doesn't contain cherries, and gets its rosy hue from insect extract.
As someone with an interest in the history of medicine, I was like a kid in a candy store. The analogy is grimly apt, for one of the turning points in pharmaceutical history involved a batch of peppermint humbugs. In 1858, a Bradford confectioner accidentally mixed arsenic into his sweets, believing it to be a sugar substitute. Over 200 people were poisoned, and 21 killed (mostly children). The appalling tragedy led to a shake-up of pharmacy regulations, putting the trained pharmacist as the sole dispenser of poisons and other restricted substances.
Regulation doesn't always work, mind. I was surprised to learn that cheating athletes still occasionally dope themselves up with strychnine which, in small doses, is thought to be performance enhancing but which, in moderate doses, will kill you dead.
And that's the crux of the pharmaceutical arts — to strike a balance. The museum practices what it preaches, with just the right amount of material to hold interest for an hour or so. It's a potent admixture that melds scientific progress with a tincture of the bizarre. And it's funny how often bears pop up...
The Royal Pharmaceutical Society's museum is at 66 East Smithfield E1W 1AW. Nearest station is Tower Hill or Tower Gateway. Entrance is free with no booking required, Mon-Fri 9am-5pm. With thanks to Open House London for putting this on our radar, and the staff of the RPS (including the librarians) for such an enlightening tour.