Did your mother ever try to medicate you?
A few tummy gripes and mine would reach up to the top shelf of the pantry for the dreaded Milk of Magnesia.
“Noooo!! Not the devil’s breast milk!! Don’t make me drink the liquid chalk. I don’t want to draw a hopscotch grid on the road with my own poo!”
Feeling a bit tired? “Here, get this down you – a spoonful of Virol. It’s good for you. It’s got malt in it.”
It was the colour of toffee, you could spoon it like soft toffee, but it had a distinctly non-toffee taste. I always used to pull a face.
“What’s wrong with you?” mater used to say. “It’s lovely. I can put it in a sandwich if you like.”
“Got a bit of a sore throat? Have you been taking your haliborange?”
“No mother, a tic-tac-sized little orange sweetie isn’t going to actually *do* anything.”
“What’s that, a little Athlete’s Foot between the toes? Whitfield’s Ointment!!”
I remember a small jar that seemed to be around for 15 years or more. It worked but if it missed the spot, it’d strip the healthy skin off your foot too.
“Having trouble going to the loo? Syrup of Figs, that’s what you need, my girl.”
Mater was very hot on homely remedies. Not long after she married my dad, she made a bread poultice to draw out a boil on my father’s neck which resulted in a 2nd degree burn.
In our house in a Welsh valley, a nice plump goose wasn’t just for Christmas. Goose-grease was kept for years, gradually discolouring and becoming more and more rancid in a poorly-covered jar in the pantry You never knew when you might need to put it on a bad chest.
You only had to cough and mother would be moving bowls and plates to get at the goose-grease and try to make me swallow spoonfuls of the rancid mess. Of course, I refused, in which case it would be rubbed into my upper chest before bed. So not only did I feel really bad, I smelled pretty gross too.
But her intentions were honourable and she wasn’t alone. In the 1960’s, people were still using over-the-counter remedies that had been established for 100 years or more.
Unlike mumsie, I’ve never really had a proper first aid kit or home remedies – just a few boxes of plasters, paracetamol and aspirin plus a tube of Savlon. Oh and lovely diclofenac, a heavy-duty drug (now associated with adverse cardiac events so keep taking the less effective naproxen, folks) which was my ‘last resort’ for the pain of a sprained knee and ankle after that nasty bike/acorn prang.
Mumsie, in a caring sense with the best possible motives, often attempted to medicate my brother and I though it was noticeable that she didn’t attempt it with dad after the poultice incident.
Once, when I was recuperating after yet another bout of tonsillitis, after finishing the customary bottle of banana-flavoured penicillin – which actually I always fancied should have been served in knickerbocker glory glasses with blobs of ice-cream decorated with cherries and squirty cream – she pulled out the most diabolical of remedies: Parrish’s Chemical Food.
Parrish’s Food wasn’t solid. It came in a bottle with a narrow neck and little metal screw-top; like Camp coffee but packed a much bigger punch.
Mater introduced it by reading some of the blurb from the label about it being a nourishing tonic after illness or being out of sorts. She had me pinned into the corner in the kitchen between the pantry and the draining board, as I recall.
She got the predictable reaction. “Nope. Not having any of that. It looks vile.”
“Nothing wrong with it. It’ll do you good,” she said, unscrewing the cap and reaching for a dessertspoon from the kitchen drawer.
“Noooo. It looks horrible. I don’t need it, I’m fine.”
I was looking for escape routes which might involve sending that spoon flying.
She realised that in that position, to avoid sudden, uncalled-for, avant-garde wall decoration, she had to use persuasion.
“Look, I’ll prove to you it’s fine. It’ll have some first. Watch.”
She filled the dessertspoon.
“You only need one of these.” An attempt to be re-assuring.
It came out of the bottle like an evil mix of thin black tar tinged with old blood. We both looked at it. She grimaced slightly and gave a hesitant smile. Ah-haaa. Such obvious second thoughts…
“Well go on then” I said, heartlessly.
She tipped the spoonful into her mouth in one go and her face screwed up as though she’d just swigged battery acid. She gagged and shoved me aside to spit it into the sink. I’d never seen my mother behaving in such an unseemly way. She grabbed a glass and glugged down about a pint of water before she recovered her equilibrium.
“It must have gone off. It can’t be meant to taste like that.”
We laughed about that many times afterwards. A taste of her own medicine. It needed far more than a spoonful of sugar to make that particular medicine go down. It was the last time she tried to medicate me. Result.
No-one I know seems to remember Parrish’s Chemical Food but done a bit of digging and found that it was a popular iron supplement invented by a 19th century Quaker physician Dr Edward Parrish in Philadelphia, mainly consisting of ferrous phosphate. It was first mentioned in his Practical Pharmacy published in 1856. In the1859 edition he listed the ingredients as protosulphate of iron, phosphate of soda, phosphate of lime, phosphoric acid, carbonate of soda, carbonate of potassa, muriatic acid, water of ammonia, powdered cochineal, water, sugar, and orange-flower water. Pharmacists produced and pedalled their own versions of this efficacious over-the-counter pick-me-up right up until the late sixties.
A locum pharmacist said on one website discussion group “It’s a long time since I last saw it in a pharmacy. You have just reminded me that we made Parrish’s Food at college in the fifties. We started with iron wire from which we were supposed to remove all traces of rust.”
Great. There’s more: “Pure iron wire was weighed out and the calculated amount of phosphoric acid added, just sufficient to dissolve the wire. The resulting fluid was then mixed with syrup, and red colouring added to produce the tonic. In the eyes of the public it clearly contained real iron and would certainly give them strength. It was as if some believed that the wire was reconstituted in the body, adding some sort of steely structure to the human frame.”
Just as well we don’t know what goes into the manufacture of Night Nurse.
It was given to dogs for rickets – it was even overtly advertised in George Bernard Shaw’s “The Doctor’s Dilemma.” Perhaps Shaw got a decent supply of the stuff in exchange for product placement.
SCHUTZMACHER [rather hurt at so moderate an estimate] Oh, much oftener than that. You see, most people get well all right if they are careful and you give them a little sensible advice. And the medicine really did them good. Parrish’s Chemical Food: phosphates, you know. One tablespoonful to a twelve-ounce bottle of water: nothing better, no matter what the case is.
RIDGEON. Redpenny: make a note of Parrish’s Chemical Food.
SCHUTZMACHER. I take it myself, you know, when I feel run down.
Ahhhhh! One tablespoon to twelve ounces of water…that probably explains why mater behaved as though she’d been poisoned when she took it neat.
The stuff tasted so nasty that there were persuasive rumours that Parrish’s Chemical Food, aka Syrupus Ferri Phosphatis Compositus was finally withdrawn from sale because it contained arsenic.
Writing to the BMJ in 1998, Caroline Reed, Curator of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain said “Having checked through the wealth of sources available in the library of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain, I can confirm that this was not the case.
“There is no mention of arsenic, and I can find no evidence of its having been an ingredient of any later variants of the product used in the United Kingdom.
That’s a relief. Mater’s homely remedies may have tasted like various sorts of poison but we didn’t ever suspect any of them might have contained the real thing.
“The taste is agreeably acid.”