Chemical Drugs

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Israel Whelan purchased a wide variety of chemicals at Strong & Gillaspy. (Druggists were a prime outlet for all fine chemicals in the early 1800s.) And though some of them had other uses, most were bought to be used as medicines, including a few today that we might view as poisons.

Glauber's Salt (USA) – Perhaps only one chemical drug significant to the Corps was produced in North America: Glauber's salt–sodium sulfate. While Lewis ordered a few ounces of some other chemical drugs, such as magnesia, tartar emetic, and white vitriol, he asked for six pounds of "salts."

"The Marshall Apothecary"

IIn this painting by the renowned American historical illustrator Robert Thom (1915-1979), the Irish immigrant-apothecary Christopher Marshall is shown teaching his sons the art of manufacturing pills. The mid-18th-century setting is Marshall's shop, which he established in 1729, and which served for 96 years a model for others in the Philadelphia area. By the 1780s, the Marshalls were among the first in the young United States to begin manufacturing fine drug-grade chemicals such as Glauber's salt. In 1804, the family business passed into the hands of Christopher's granddaughter, Elizabeth Marshall, one of the first women pharmacists in North America.1

Popular with physicians and laymen alike, Glauber's salt was judged "a mild and useful purgative."2 Second only to Rush's Pills, it was the laxative of choice for the captains. It was named for Johann Glauber (1604-1668), who apparently was the first to identify this chemical in its natural form, in a hot spring in Hungary. Lewis and Clark frequently likened the flavor of some of the spring waters they tasted to that of Glauber's salt.

Cream of Tartar – A large quantity–2 pounds–of Cream of Tartar (potassium bitartrate) appears on the drug list. Derived from the tartar deposited on wine casks, cream of tartar was a common ingredient in laxative preparations, often combined with senna, jalap, or scammony. Physicians also prescribed it alone as a mild laxative. As one authority put it, "there are few medicines more commonly employed."3 Today, cream of tartar is no longer a medicine but it comprises a prime ingredient of baking powder. Therefore it continues to be "commonly employed!"

Tartar Emetic – A potent derivative of cream of tartar was called tartar emetic for its swift and reliable inducement of vomiting. The single ounce of potassium antimony tartrate carried by the captains was enough for one or two hundred doses. Emetics were usually given to help the patient eliminate any noxious substance that might be producing imbalance.4

Elixir of Vitriol – A wide variety of recipes exist for this mixture of sulfuric acid, alcohol, and aromatics (usually ginger and cinnamon). Whatever the preparation, this elixir was prescribed as a tonic and for stomach disorders.5

Saltpetre (nitre) – The nitrates have had a long and fascinating history as medicines and chemicals. Valued as fertilizers, nitrates have been sought by farmers for hundreds of years.6 The medicinal nitrate of choice, saltpetre (potassium nitrate) was both mined as a mineral and extracted from plant and animal matter. Private George Gibson returned to Fort Clatsop from the salt-makers' camp with a persistent fever; Captain Lewis treated him with both Dr. Rush's bilious pills and nitre.

Gibson's fever still continues obstenate tho' not very high; I gave him a doze of Dr. Rush's which in many instances I have found extreemly efficatious in fevers which are in any measure caused by the presence of boil [bile?]. the nitre has produced a profuse perspiration this evening and the pills operated late at night his fever after which abated almost entirely and he had a good night's rest.7

MagnesiaLike some of the other chemical drugs carried along by the Corps, Magnesia (magnesium oxide) has continued to be used in modern medicine for the same purpose–as an antacid.8

Eye Wash as Currency (Sugar of Lead and White Vitriol) – Oddly enough, one could argue that the small quantities of sugar of lead (lead acetate) and white vitriol (zinc sulfate) carried by the Corps were among their most precious cargo. Whelan spent less than a dollar on these ingredients, which were dissolved in water to make eye wash, or "eye water," but their value skyrocketed when it came to bargaining for food and horses to get them back across the Rockies in the spring of 1806. By that time the captains had no more than a handful of bona fide trade goods left, and medical ministrations were all they could offer. On the Columbia River below the mouth of the Snake, the captains gave the Walula Indians some eye water which, Clark believed, would "render them more esential Sirvece than any other article in the Medical way which we had in our power to bestow on them."9 Lewis concluded, after they reached Nez Perce territory again a few days later, "sore eyes is an universal complaint with all the natives we have seen on the west side of the Rocky mountains."10

External Remedies (USA from imported ingredients) – At first glance, the several external preparations purchased for the Corps seem like an afterthought. However, on a journey of back-breaking labor with scores of cuts and scrapes, blisters and rope burns looming ahead, they were sensible purchases. And while today we stock up on sterile bandages and antibiotic cremes, military medicine around 1800 called for far cruder pharmaceuticals such as Unguent Basilicon, a greasy mixture of eight parts hog lard, five parts white resin, and two parts yellow wax.12 Another was Diachylon Plaster, a sticky mixture of oil and litharge (lead monoxide), which was ordered by physicians from the time of Galen (AD 131-201) up into the 1950s. A third long-standing favorite, Balsam Traumaticum or Compound Benzoin Tincture, was used both externally and internally. This aromatic remedy had many recipes, the most common consisting of small amounts of benzoin (resin from genus Styrax), balsam of Peru, and aloes dissolved in alcohol.13 Calamine ointment, a final soothing remedy, was used in ways similar to our own calamine lotion.

At the other end of the therapeutic spectrum sat Unguentum Epispastic or blistering plaster, which contained as its active ingredient Cantharides or Spanish Flies. These dried insects, when pounded into a greasy base (wax, suet, lard, or a mixture), yielded a preparation that according to the Edinburgh New Dispensatory of 1797 "never fails of producing blisters."14 The theory was simple: the fluid in blisters could carry away the toxins causing illness in the patient.


1. Haynes, American Chemical Industry, 187.

2. Edinburgh New Dispensatory (1791), 396.

3. Ibid., (1797), 254.

4. Ibid., (1791), 419.

5. Ibid., (1797), 494-496.

6. Aaron Ihde, The Development of Modern Chemistry (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), 449-451.

7. Moulton, Journals, February 16, 1806.

8. David B. Troy, ed., Remington: The Science and Practice of Pharmacy (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 2006), p 1296.

9. Moulton, Journals, April 29, 1806.

10. Ibid., May 5, 1806.

11. Edinburgh New Dispensatory (1797), 572.

12. Robert A. Buerki & Gregory J. Higby, "History of Dosage Forms and Basic Preparations," Encyclopedia of Pharmaceutical Technology (New York: Marcel Dekker, 1993), 7:325-326; Edinburgh New Dispensatory (1797), 478-479. See recipe in Remington: The Science and Practice of Pharmacy, ed. David B. Troy (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 2006), 1280.

13. Robert A. Buerki & Gregory J. Higby, "History of Dosage Forms and Basic Preparations," Encyclopedia of Pharmaceutical Technology (New York: Marcel Dekker, 1993), volume 7, pp. 325-326; END 1797, p. 478-479. Cf. recipe in Remington: The Science and Practice of Pharmacy, edited by David B. Troy (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 2006), p. 1280.14. Edinburgh New Dispensatory (1791), 557.