In May 1803, an Army purchasing agent named Israel Whelan walked into Gillaspy & Strong, druggists, at the corner of 2nd and High Streets in Philadelphia. He brought with him a very important shopping list. It was the list of medicines that Meriwether Lewis wished to purchase for the Lewis & Clark Expedition.
The list is a fascinating glimpse into the theory and practice of “heroic medicine” in the early 19th century. First off, Lewis’s list contained purgatives—various drugs used to cleanse the body, either gently or violently. “4 oz. Calomel, 10 lbs. Epsom or Glauber Salts, 8 oz Powder Jalap, 8 oz Powdered Rhubarb” are featured prominently on the list. Calomel, a mercurous chloride compound, was taken internally and used as a laxative and disinfectant, as well as in the treatment of syphilis. It was a favorite of Lewis’s teacher Dr. Benjamin Rush, who advised giving “bilious” (i.e. constipated) patients calomel until they began to salivate. Rush did not mention that at high doses, the mercury in the compound reach poisonous levels and cause the patient’s hair and teeth to fall out.
Almost as powerful as calomel, jalap is a Mexican root described as “useful in all cases where it is desirable to produce an energetic influence on the bowels, or to obtain large evacuations.” Rhubarb, also a strong laxative, has been used in both western and eastern medicine for centuries. For cases where such drastic measures weren’t necessary, Lewis also stocked Epsom or Glauber’s salt. This magnesium sulfate compound could be used for everything from inducing gentle bowel movements (a la Milk of Magnesia) to reducing inflammation and soothing sore skin.
In case all of the above remedies didn’t do the trick, Whelan also laid in 50 dozen of Rush’s pills, the infamous “thunderbolts” that purged the bowels with a dramatic combination of calomel and jalap. In case they did the trick too well, Lewis asked for “2 lbs. Coperas,” a substance used to treat diarrhea. So on that end of the alimentary canal, the men of the Corps of Discovery were covered.
In addition to purgatives, emetics were included on Lewis’s medicine list. Lewis requested “4 oz Powder’d Ipecacuana” (known to us as the vomit-inducing ipecac syrup) and “1/2 oz. Tarter emetic.” The small amount of tartar emetic Lewis requested shows his awareness that it should be given sparingly, in very small doses. Tartar emetic is extremely hard on the body. In emergency cases, it can be used in tiny doses to induce vomiting, salivation, and sweating.
Anticipating skin ailments, Lewis asked Whelan to purchase some compounds he could use to treat wounds and skin irritation. This included “8 oz Borax” (the antifungal salt sodium borate), “1 Flour of Sulphur” (used to treat chapped or inflamed skin), and “2 lbs Yellow Basilicum” ( a fragrant skin ointment). Lewis also asked for “2 Sticks of Symple Diachylon,” used to reduce swelling and dissipate tumors of the skin. Not wanting to be unprepared in case he needed to induce, rather than treat, inflammation, Lewis also requested “1 lb. Blistering Ointments.”
For pain relief, Lewis fell back on the good old staples, laudanum and opium. Whelan’s receipt from Gillaspy & Strong shows 4 oz. laudanum and ½ lb. Turkish opium among the items he purchased.
Among the more useful medicines Whelan purchased for Lewis included 15 pounds of “best powder’d Bark.” Peruvian bark was a popular tonic and cure-all of its day, used to treat fevers of all kinds. Unbeknownst to Lewis, Peruvian bark (or cinchona) contained quinine, which made it genuinely effective in treating malarial fever. Lewis also packed in some “white vitriol” (zinc sulfate) and “Lacteaum Saturni” (sugar of lead), which when combined made an effective, soothing, and harmless eyewash that made Captain Clark the Indians’ “favorite physician” during the Corps of Discovery’s return trip along the Columbia in 1806.
One last item on Lewis’s list reveals that although he was a competent field doctor and knowledgeable herbalist, he was still susceptible to clever advertising. Lewis requested “4 oz Turlingtons Balsam.” This was a product made by British patent medicine vendor Robert Turlington, who gave his product the irresistible name, “The Balsam of Life” and claimed it was effective for “stone, gravel, cholic, & inward weaknesses.” Containing some 27 ingredients, Turlington’s Balsam was actually effective as a mild antiseptic and in the treatment of blisters. It is known today in modified form as the compound tincture of benzoin.
For more great reading, visit this great page on the Discovering Lewis & Clark site: “Lewis’s Medicines.”