Percy Criddle’s Medicine Chest

Reid Dickie

Criddle Vane family 1895

Criddle/Vane Family at Manitoba homestead 1895 l to r: Cecil V, Elise V, Evelyn C, Norman C (seated), Edwy V, Julia C, Talbot C, Alice C, Alma C, Percy C, Maida C, Harry V, Beatrice C, Stuart C

Born in England in the midst of the Victorian era, Percy Criddle brought his extended family to Canada in 1882 settling on a patch of sandy land south of present-day Shilo, MB. Apparently (and there are many apparentlys in Percy’s story) Percy studied some medicine during his university days in Heidelberg, Germany and brought his medical books with him to Canada. He treated the various maladies of his family, which eventually totaled sixteen people, and, because doctors were scarce on the newly-awakening prairie, Percy provided medical attention to ailing members of the local community as well.

From a pea lodged in a child’s nose to haemorrhaging after birth, Percy offered his panaceas to all who sought his medical advice. Scurvy, measles, whooping cough, chicken pox, colds, grippe (we call it flu), rheumatic fever, kidney stones, quinsy (complication of tonsillitis) and toothache were among the conditions Percy treated using a remarkably short list of medicines.

Percy Criddle was extremely lucky to have a friend like J. A. Tulk. He visited Percy in Canada several times, traveling from London and always bearing gifts for his old friend. On one trip Tulk brought Percy a complete medicine chest with labelled medications and a host of medical devices from scales to surgery equipment.

Brandon was the nearest place to purchase medications and Apothecaries Hall on Rosser Avenue, run by the city’s first doctor, Alexander Fleming, offered up-to-date potions. It’s likely Percy was a patron, perhaps an unwilling one, of Fleming’s drugstore.

In her book Criddle-De-Diddle-Ensis, largely based on Percy’s detailed diaries, Alma Criddle offers a list of the medicines her grandfather used regularly.  Described by the original names as Percy knew them, I researched all of Percy’s medicines and found some intriguing mixtures! At least five of them contained opium in some form; several were poisons in higher doses. Let’s look inside Percy Criddle’s medicine chest.

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor and I do not play one on TV. This information is for entertainment purposes only. I am in no way recommending these treatments, just reporting what medical resources were available to pioneers 130 years ago.

Ipecac – used from 18th to early 20th century, a poison from ipecac root but in small doses induces vomiting, also an expectorant and an ingredient in Dover’s Powders.

Fer what ails yaDover’s Powders – discovered by Dr. Thomas Dover in 18th century, used to treat colds and fever, consisted of ipecac and opium.

Quinine – white powder obtained from an indigenous Peruvian tree and used by Europeans starting in the 17th century to reduce fever, pain and inflammation and to treat malaria.

Rochelle salts – potassium sodium tartrate first used in 1675 in La Rochelle, France for laxative effect.

Mustard plasters – composed of crushed mustard seed mixed with flour and water spread on a warmed cloth and applied to chest, back and/or abdomen to stimulate the immune system, relieve pain, act as an anti-inflammatory, treat common colds, runny noses, rheumatism and respiratory problems.

Poultices – long used as method of treating inflammation of skin,Drawing Salve cuts and pain, medicinal ingredients spread on cloth which is applied to body where needed, commercial poultices are available today, sometimes called drawing salves.

Castor oil – an ancient remedy derived from the oil of the castor bean, used in production of hundreds of modern products, its medical use as a powerful laxative, treats headaches, muscles aches and sinus problems.

Ginger – traditional folk medicine that spans cultures, known in Percy’s time as Jamaica ginger, helped relieve gastric conditions from preventing gas to treating constipation, colic and bowel inflammation.

Catechu – derived from the boiled acacia wood, traditional medicine for sore throats and an astringent.

Chlorate of Potash – potassium chlorate, poisonous compound Chlorate of Potashwidely used in industrial products, like matches, explosives and fireworks, treatment for muscle spasms, sore throat and possibly as a disinfectant.

Tincture of iron – in moderate doses, it acts as a tonic and astringent upon the alimentary canal, increasing the appetite, promoting digestion, speeding recovery and relieving constipation.

Hypno-Bromide – potassium bromide plus other ingredients used to induce sleepHypno...! among many other applications, hypnotics came in a variety of combinations, here’s one from Worchester, Mass. listing ingredients and uses.

Colocynth – aka bitter apple, bitter cucumber, desert gourd, egusi, or vine of Sodom, used since 3800 BC a herb from which ripe fruit is used to treat constipation, liver and gallbladder ailments, has anti-inflammatory properties.

Bromide of Ammonia – ammonium bromide, a homeopathic treatment for corpulency (obesity), timidity, malaise, fatigue, nervous restlessness, pains in legs and lack of self-confidence.

Sal Volatile – ammonium carbonate or smelling salts, ammonia Sal Volatilestimulates the mucous membranes and causes an inhalation reflex bringing one into consciousness, used if about to faint and by high performance athletes like power lifters and hockey players as a stimulant to better play.

Rhubarb – long a staple of Chinese medicine as a gastric balancer, powdered rhubarb root, by one report, used as “anticholesterolemic (reduces blood cholesterol), antiseptic, antispasmodic (suppresses muscles spasms), antitumor (fights malignancy), aperient (mild laxative), astringent (constricts tissue), cholagogue (promotes bile discharge), demulcent (produces a soothing film), diuretic, laxative, purgative (strong laxative), stomachic (aids stomach digestion) and tonic.

Bottle labelSteedman’s Soothing Powders – used after 1882,  relieved symptoms of teething in children like gum inflammation, fevers, convulsions and diarrhoea, formula a mystery until 1909 when scientists discovered it contained calomel (mercury) which was not removed until 1940, original formula included opium.

Chloradyne – 19th century invention as treatment for cholera, diarrhea, insomnia, neuralgia, migraines, its principal ingredients were a mixture of laudanum (an alcoholic solution of opium), tincture of cannabis, and chloroform, readily lived up to its claims as a sedative and analgesic.

Laudanum – tincture of opium, its principal use was as a painkiller and cough suppressant but prescribed for almost every malady, content varied but often included, along with the opium, “mercury, hashish, cayenne pepper, ether, chloroform, belladonna, whiskey, wine and brandy.”

Tincture of Calumba – root of calumba, an African plant, used for indigestion and intestinal ailments including worms, helps with morning sickness due to pregnancy, snakebites, hernia and abscesses.

Fizzgigs – Percy’s own panacea, a medicine he created although from what and for what purpose nothing is known.

Dr. Thomas’ Eclectric (Electric) Oil – the tonic favoured by prairie doctors in the late 1800s and early 1900s contained spirits, oilDr. Thomas' Eclectic Oil of tar, turpentine, camphor and fish oil, treated toothache, backache, earache, lameness, coughs, hoarseness, colds, sore throat, burns, scalds and could cure deafness in 2 days. Despite its claims and popularity, Percy did not trust or use this medicine, perhaps because it was not based on British science but on New World invention.

So how effective were Percy and his bag of gris-gris? Very helpful in spite of the extreme ingredients in some treatments, if you go by the lives of his children. Percy, Alice and Elise had fourteen children: the first, Mabel, died in her first year, the last, Alma, died of cancer at age 23. The rest of Percy’s offspring, Criddles and Vanes, mostly lived long productive lives. These are his children’s death ages: Norman 57, Julia 64, Isabel 83, Edwy 84, Talbot 85, Beatrice 86, Cecil 87, Minnie 87, Stuart 93, Evelyn 95, Maida 98 and Harry 100. Percy died at 73, Alice 68, Elise 62.

Join me for a video tour of the Criddle/Vane homestead.

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