Arsenic and other homely remedies

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.

Old newspaper ad

“The taste is agreeably acid.”

About janh1

Part-time hedonist.
This entry was posted in Current Affairs, Food and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

34 Responses to Arsenic and other homely remedies

  1. valzone says:

    Well, thats given me a good laugh to start my day, thanks Jan, brilliant. It was like you were discussing my mother, and I’m sure many more readers here will probably agree. I cannot recall Parrish’s Chemical foods, but I certainly had my share of Virol., and was given the Milk of Mag treatment, if I was looking peaky.
    (For all adults here – it might be worth noting. At night, never take Syrup of figs, and a sleeping tablet……because there’s every chance you’ll poo the bed, and sleep right through the event)

    • janh1 says:

      Eeew Val! I adore the way you lowered the tone even further than *I* usually do!! Welcome sis! 🙂

      Mums, eh? They meant well though, didn’t they? And instilled in me a healthy disrespect for all sorts of over-the-counter snake oils. Mind you, I think I’d still love that banana antibiotic. You could probably make a Snowball with it.

  2. IsobelandCat says:

    Laughing too much to comment… 🙂

  3. janh1 says:

    Hi Isobel. I do hope you haven’t taken syrup of figs… 😉

  4. John Mackie says:

    Hi Janh1

    A fine and most enjoyable polemic. Personally, I am delighted to see that you have excluded from any criticism what now appears to be called ‘Vick’s VapoRub’ but which was, I think, ‘Vick’s Vapour Rub’ in the happy days of Empire. I do not believe that I would be the man that I am today, had my mother not applied that product to my upper chest whenever I came close to wheezing in any way.

    And, since it’s been a long time and as said ‘vapour rub’ has reminded me. Your para 15.- ‘honorable?’ American spell checker to blame?

  5. janh1 says:

    One second, John. Ah, that’s better. Thank you. Purely a slip of the digit. An American spell-checker? Good grief, that would be the worst kind of spell-checker. In any case, I never use you, as you’ll have noticed! 🙂

    Reducing the name to VapoRub is dumming down of the worst commercial kind. The smell of Vick still makes me feel “looked after” though. Odd isn’t it – especially as mater thought eating it would also be beneficial for my throat. Doh!!

  6. John Mackie says:


    I trust that one realises that I would not even begin to think about rising to make a comment on ‘dumming’. Once a night is quite enough when it comes to commenting on Welsh orthography.

    In my opinion.

    Most of the time.

  7. Pseu says:

    Excellent Jan. Most excellent. When we cleared out Ma’s bathroom for her move a few years ago we came across the ridged bottle with pharmacist’s scrawl on the label and no use by date: the stuff to stop you up…. and it had lived in that cupboard for as long as I can remember (we moved there in 1972. We moved her out in about 2004) and it’s one you haven’t mentioned. Kaoin and morph.
    When I said we should throw it out she blithely said,
    “Oh, it’d probably be alright.”

    • Pseu says:

      And…there’s more

      Alternative uses for Vick:

      1. It make you look as if you’ve been crying (well it made your eyes run) if you apply a small amount to your eyelids and was known to be used to get folk off school.

      2, Very useful for cooling the piles.

    • janh1 says:

      Laughing here. Love it!! Were they all made from the same mould, our mothers?
      They didn’t have any concept of things going “off.” Everything just lasted for years.

      Yes I do remember k and m; pink and chalky and wonderful for calling a halt to gastric cramps and trots!

  8. Darrel Kirby says:

    I remember milk of magnesia and kaolin and morphine with equal horror.
    Also, the only use for olive oil was to insert in the ear using a cotton bud in case of ear ache.
    Worst of all though, in the event of cuts or grazes, was the dreaded iodine. Stung like hell and left the afflicted area looking like a giant yellow bruise.

    • Pseu says:

      Germaline and Pink Healing Ointment, Beecham’s Powders and Epsom Liver Salts. All gone by the bye!

      • Pseu says:

        and TCP (Yeurk!)

      • janh1 says:

        Andrews Liver Salts!! Oh yes, mumsie often knocked those back. They were very fizzy. Not unpleasant. Epsom Salts though, are unknown quantity.

        Having persistent tonsillitis as a kid, I got used to gargling with TCP. My brother and I used to have gargling competitions where we would gargle some pop song of the time and the one that didn’t choke and burst out laughing was the winner. Ah the simple pleasures… who needs an XBox when you can have gargling contests.

      • Pseu says:

        Yes, not Epsom. That’s racecourse isn’t it?

    • janh1 says:

      Hi Darrel. Oh yes, that little bottle of olive oil from the chemist. Mum kept ours for years, half full. We wouldn’t have dreamed of pouring it over a salad. It was Only For Ears. How the French and Italians would have laughed.

      I don’t think we had iodine. It was big in Tunisia though, when Capt Sensible fell out of a cave, breaking his wrist and bashing his nose slightly, the doctors covered it in iodine. Very fetching. not.

      • Pseu says:

        Another one another one another one…..
        gentian violet. Lovely red stuff. Toxic of course. Like Pot Permang. But that’s red….

  9. janh1 says:

    I’ve heard of gentian violet but not seen it used. Was Potassium Permang an antiseptic for wounds too? I only remember it from basic chemistry.

    Epsom? Yes like the racecourse in that its effects could be quite speedy! And like the Downs because of the movement in that general direction…

  10. John Mackie says:

    Darrel and Janh1,

    I suppose that you have to be old enough to properly remember being there (just before it all slides into not remembering as it may well in my case).

    Olive oil in little pharmaceutical bottles with a dropper? Never. I think that you will find that said little bottles for earwax were almond oil.

    Moving on, I have never forgiven iodine for what it did to me in its time.

  11. janh1 says:

    Morning John. Well our sixties olive oil was in a bigger bottle – about four inches high – without a dropper. Matter of fact, it’s enjoying a resurgence at the moment as the favoured method of softening ear wax before having an ear syringe!

    I think we need to hear about the iodine. Did it sting or just make you go a funny colour (funny as in both odd and risible 🙂 )?

  12. earlybird says:

    OMG – I’d forgotten all about kaolin and morphine… and Milk of Magnesia… I remember the deep green viscous olive oil in a little bottle in the medecine cabinet for ear cleaning… and how about calamine lotion? I spent a good part of my childhood under a towel hunched over a steaming bowl of Karvol – ‘and don’t come out until there’s no steam left.’

    • janh1 says:

      Greetings Earlybird! Oh kaolin and morphine was Wonderstuff! Stopped tum gripes in their tracks. Similarly calamine lotion – I remember being slathered in that when I got chickenpox.

      Love the “don’t come out until there’s no steam left” !!! 🙂 In fact we still recommend the old “head over the bowl” vapour thing for flu and head colds, only these days it’s menthol and eucalyptus that’s recommended.

  13. Everything You Wanted To Know About Medicines But Were Afraid To Ask in one blog post, Jan 😀 Very funny indeed. Glad indeed about the arsenic.

  14. janh1 says:

    Morning Kate and thanks!! Yes the arsenic thing was interesting – it arose because doctors investigating certain cancers thought there might have been a link with the ingestion of Parrish’s Chemical Food. But Parrish’s got a clean bill of health on that one… 🙂

  15. hardened_skeptic says:

    Coo – there’s some memories there! I recall my mother giving me Parrishs Food when I was young. We used to have it diluted in water (and I have to admit I quite liked it like that – a bit like very strong Irn Bru!).. We also had a bottle of Kaolin and Morphine in the cupboard, and the dreaded little bottle of Gentian Violet. *That* was dabbed on to mouth ulcers with a cotton bud, usually to the accompaniment of excruciating pain, screaming and purple dribble…

  16. janh1 says:

    Sorry for the late response but, honestly??!! You liked it??!! Mind you, if you were brought up on Irn Bru that might explain it 😀

    I recall kaolin and morphine for stomach bugs but gentian violet is new to me.. sounds a lot like Parma Violets. Probably best not to get them confused… 🙂

    • hardened_skeptic says:

      Suitably diluted, Parrishes Food wasn’t too bad (although it did leave your teeth feeling strangely tinny!)… Gentian violet was another matter! It used to come in a little glass bottle, and indeed looked like a very strong solution of potassium permanganate (which it most definitely wasn’t!). I think it was some sort of antiseptic dissolved in neat alcohol – you can imagine the effect of dabbing that on an open wound! It would stain anything, and you had to be really careful not to spill it on your clothes – hard when you’re crawling across the ceiling in agony! If you thought putting Bonjela on a mouth ulcer was bad…!

      • janh1 says:

        I’ve only ever heard of Gentian violet so all this is news to me.. but fascinating anyway. I’ve never had a mouth ulcer either. Obviously, I just haven’t lived!! 😀

  17. hardened_skeptic says:

    Bizarrely, you can still get Parrishes Food, although it’s meant for racing pigeons nowadays! I found this at:
    No, I’m not tempted! 🙂

  18. janh1 says:

    Hahaha!!! I can only feel for the racing pigeons… how come they *ever* want to go home after being fed something that tastes like poison?!!

    I’m surprised you’re not tempted… you just said it was only “a little tinny” after being diluted. I think I’d have to dilute it in homeopathic quantities with malt whisky to make it palatable! 😀

    Thank you for that link. It’s made my day! 😀

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