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Medicines: aspirin, opium, vaccines, mercury-based

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Medicines: aspirin, opium, vaccines, mercury-based


Medical History, 19th Cent.


Kill or cure? As these early 20th-century medicines show, it depends on the dose. The four active ingredients in the blue-green pills were intended to treat heart disorders. Digitalis, made from foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), a common garden plant, has been used since the late 1700s to regulate the heartbeat and control arrhythmias (irregular heart rhythms). A buildup of digitalis in the body, though, can cause irregular heartbeats, as well as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

In tiny amounts, strychnine sulfate, an alkaloid from the poison nut tree (Strychnos nux-vomica) of southern Asia, has been used as a stimulant. At higher doses, however, it is a notorious poison, causing spasms, seizures, and death from asphyxiation. As the label on the bottle states, “Excessive dosage of strychnine is dangerous.” The skull and crossbones and poison warnings on the small bottle of strychnine phosphate reinforce this message.

Nitroglycerin, invented in 1847, is a component of dynamite and other explosives. It is also a medicine used to prevent and relieve attacks of angina (chest pain) caused by coronary artery disease. “Cactus grand.” refers to an extract from the night-blooming cereus (Selenicereus grandiflorus), used as a heart stimulant in botanical medicine.

The two other medications pictured are also derived from plants. Tincture of belladonna comes from belladonna or deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna). The alkaloids in the plant’s berries, leaves, and roots block neurotransmitters in the central and peripheral nervous systems. Belladonna has been used as a sedative and pain reliever, but its extreme toxicity makes it highly unsafe.

The yellow or Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens), a twining vine common in the southern United States, contains alkaloids related to strychnine. Gelsemium extract has been used to treat migraine headache and facial nerve pain, but like strychnine, it is very poisonous. These pills, however, are labeled “homeopathic medicine.” Homeopathy, an alternative system of medicine that flourished in the 1800s and is still practiced today, uses microscopic or theoretical amounts of active ingredients. The amount of gelsemium in these pills was unlikely to cause harm—or to do any good.

Accession Number:
MISC-2277.B147 (strychnine phosphate)
2006.15.42 (digitalis, etc.)
1988.11.2 (gelsemium)
N/A (belladonna)


Digitized by the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia


Donated by Frederick Lahvis, MD (2006.15.42); others unknown






20th Century

Original Format

Glass bottles with cork stoppers and metallic screw cap, paper labels, and medication in liquid, powder, and pill form


“Medicines: aspirin, opium, vaccines, mercury-based,” The College of Physicians of Philadelphia Digital Library, accessed May 16, 2021,