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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Civil War Pharmaceuticals

Army physicians treated their patients with the most advanced care available, but those treatments were frequently ineffective and sometimes harmful.

They applied preparations like croton oil, which burned the skin, in the belief that a “counter irritant” would increase blood flow. It didn’t work. Soldiers weak from diarrhea were dosed with emetics to induce vomiting in the belief that “cleaning out one’s insides” was beneficial. It wasn’t.

A few effective drugs were available to Civil War physicians. Ether and chloroform, the anesthetics, were routinely administered. Belladonna was helpful in the treatment of intestinal cramps.

The narcotics opium and morphine were used to treat pain and diarrhea. The liberal use of these drugs was criticized after the war for the proliferation of addition, often called “Old Soldier’s Disease.” The rising consumption of opium in the United States peaked in the 1880’s, with commercial opium preparations that were available without a prescription. More women than men were classified as opium addicts in the post-war period.

Quinine, known since the 16th century, was one of the most effective medicines available. It was used to treat fevers of all kinds but was especially helpful in treating the chills and fever of malaria. Powers and Weightman, a Philadelphia-based firm, was the nation’s largest supplier of quinine.

Turpentine was routinely prescribed for oral and topical use in America and Europe. When quinine wasn’t available, Confederate surgeons substituted turpentine.

”Blue Mass”, a claylike compound, and “blue pills” both contained the toxin mercurous chloride. They were used to treat many ailments, sometimes causing severe reactions. President Abraham Lincoln used “blue pills” to combat chronic constipation.

Before the Civil War, the U.S. Army had purchased medicines on the open market. During the course of the conflict, the Union army began to rely heavily o a few large domestic drug companies for stable prices and inventories.

Fueled by the demand for medicines during the Revolutionary War, a North American pharmaceutical industry had sprung up from Baltimore to Boston, with several firms based in Philadelphia. Many of these companies were founded by pharmacists and physicians with names like Wyeth, Warner, Upjohn and Dohme. As the Civil War progressed, existing companies including Powers and Weightman and the Pfizer Company increased their production of drugs like iodine, morphine, chloroform, tartaric acid and camphor.

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