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Victorian Medicine

Use of Laudanum and Treatment of the Sick


Amongst the manuscripts I have consulted over the years is a Receipt Book in the hand of The Honourable Ellen Jane Prideaux-Brune, dated 8th October 1846. 

Included within these “Receipts”, or Recipes as we now describe them, 

were medicines to be made up by the household.

There is another page on this website giving more detail on medicine and care of the sick.


Ellen Jane was the second daughter of Robert Shapland, First Baron Carew. 

She was born in County Wexford, Ireland 2nd April 1821

and was married to Charles Glynn Prideaux-Brune

on the 21st July 1846 at St, George’s, Hanover Square, London.


Units of measure

There are eight drachms to the ounce

and three scruples to the drachm

and 20 grains to the scruple.

One Troy ounce is equal to 31.1 grammes,

not quite the same as one ounce avoirdupois

( which would not have been used for these purposes )

which is 28.35 grammes.

A Fatal dose of Laudanum

would be 2 drachms and of Opium, four grains.


Laudanum Tincture of opium.

Usually a liquid, but the alcoholic extract can be subsequently dried as well. Preparation instructions from Culpepper's Complete Herbal, 1653: Take of Thebane Opium extracted in spirit of Wine, one ounce, Saffron alike extracted, a dram and an half, Castorium one dram: let them be taken in tincture of half an ounce of species Diambræ newly made in spirit of Wine, add to them Ambergris, Musk, of each six grains, oil of Nutmegs ten drops, evaporate the moisture away in a bath, and leave the mass.

Minimum Fatal Dose of Opium.

In the adult gr. 1/6 of Morphine, or gr. iv of Opium has proved fatal.


Treatment of Opium Poisoning.

The chief indications are-to evacuate the stomach, maintain respiration, and keep up the circulation. Potassium Permanganate, in dose one-half greater than the amount of Morphine ingested, is said to be a perfect antidote to Opium or Morphine in the stomach. Atropine antagonizes its cerebral action, also its action on the pupil, respiration, heart and arterial tension (?), but if given too freely will endanger the case by substituting Belladonna narcosis for Opium narcosis ; gr. 1/120, hypodermically, every 15 minutes, for three doses, is generally sufficient. Strychnine. Coffee, Caffeine, and Cocaine are also physiologically antagonistic to Morphine. Faradisation of the chest muscles, cold effusion and artificial respiration are of great value. Flagellation is a very dangerous procedure, from the exhaustion produced ; strong faradic currents are much more efficient. Evacuation of the bladder is important, to prevent re-absorption.


The chief indications for the use of Opium are (1) to relieve pain ; (2) to produce sleep ; (3) to allay irritation; (4) to check excessive secretions ; (5) to support the system; (6) as a sudorific. It is badly borne usually by women and children, and in some persons great nausea and depression follow its use, which may usually be averted by the conjoined administration of Potassium Bromide, Hydrobromic Acid, or Spirit of Ether, with each dose of the opiate used.



Transcribed from The Receipt Book 1846


The Household

Take a basketful of withered poppies and set about making laudanum.

Pick out the poppy heads one by one,

pierced the capsules with a sewing needle

and then drop them into a small glazed crock

and set it near the stove for the opium to sweat out.

Afterwards, the extract would be

mixed with sugar and/or alcohol to make it easier to drink.


Strengthening Medicine
Two and a half drachmas of Camomile flowers
half a drachma of bitter orange peel
half a drachma of root ginger
15 grains of root rhubarb
2 scruples of carbonated soda.
Pour a quart of boiling water on these ingredients.
Let it stand till cold,
strain it and put into a bottle for use.
A good sized wine glass full to be taken one hour
before breakfast and one hour before dinner.

For rheumatism

One spoonful of gum-guacum mixed with two teaspoonfuls of milk,

add six drops of laudanum, and take it three times a Day.

This is the quantity for one taking.


For a cough

Two tablespoonfuls of vinegar,

Two tablespoonfuls of Treacle

60 drops of Laudanum.

take a teaspoonful of this mixture night and morning.


A Rub for Rheumatism and other pains

2 ounces of laudanum.

2 drachms oil of sassafras.

2 drachms oil of cedar.

2 drachms spirits of turpentine.

2 drachms of gum camphor.

2 drachms tincture of capsicum.

1 pint of alcohol.



Poultices of bread and milk, flaxseed, slippery elm, or any other

kind, may be worn with more comfort,

and removed with more ease,

if the surface is spread over,

before applying, with a little perfectly

fresh lard or sweet oil.

If there is much pain, a few drops

of laudanum may be mixed with the poultice. 

Spread always on soft old cloths.




 In 1520, Paracelsus of Switzerland, promoted a mixture of opium, wine and various spices as a curative for anything. He called it laudanum. Laudanum remained popular and acceptable in Europe some 400 years. Laudanum was cheaper than gin or beer and was generally praised as a mood elevator.


In 19th century Britain it was the drug indicated in the treatment for any pain from infant teething to rheumatism, as well as for sleeplessness, diarrhoea, coughs and colds, and depression. It was largely self prescribed, since medical care for the mass of people was still mostly a matter of traditional remedies, and it was as popular as aspirin is now. Every home had its bottle of laudanum -- opium dissolved in alcohol --, and in areas where living and working conditions were their worst, shop counters on Saturday market day would be laden with two or three thousand vials to meet the demand for the week.


Side Effects of Laudanum

Cold, clammy skin; confusion; convulsions (seizures); dizziness (severe); drowsiness (severe); low blood pressure; nervousness or restlessness (severe); pinpoint pupils of eyes; slow heartbeat; slow or irregular breathing; weakness (severe). bloating; constipation; loss of appetite; nausea or vomiting; stomach cramps or pain, rarely - Fast heartbeat; increased sweating; mental depression; redness or flushing of face; shortness of breath, wheezing, or troubled breathing; skin rash, hives, or itching; slow heartbeat – all of which require medical intervention and care ….

also Difficult or painful urination; dizziness, lightheadedness, or feeling faint; drowsiness; frequent urge to urinate; nervousness or restlessness; unusual decrease in amount of urine; unusual tiredness or weakness

After stopping use of laudanum, the body aches; diarrhea; fever, runny nose, or sneezing; gooseflesh; increased sweating; increased yawning; loss of appetite; nausea or vomiting; nervousness, restlessness, or irritability; shivering or trembling; stomach cramps; trouble in sleeping; unusually large pupils of eyes; weakness (severe).


Laudanum was a wildly popular drug during the Victorian era. It was an opium-based painkiller prescribed for everything from headaches to tuberculosis. Victorian nursemaids even spoon fed the drug to infants, often leading to the untimely deaths of their charges. Originally, Laudanum was thought of as a drug of the working class. As it was cheaper than gin it was not uncommon for blue-collar men and woman to binge on laudanum after a hard week's work. Use of the drug spread rapidly. Doctors of the time prescribed it for almost every aliment. Many upper-class women developed habits.


The outbreak of tuberculosis may have been another factor in the drug's rising popularity. For a short period of time the tuberculosis "look" (very pale skin and frequent fainting spells) was quite in vogue. Victorian women went to great lengths to emulate the look, often taking arsenic to pale the skin (slowly poisoning themselves to death).


Most Households would have a copy of a complete household adviser,

or be well aware of the following information ….

The Sick Room. -- Insist upon the most perfect cleanliness, and secure as far as possible a supply of pure air. Ventilate the room at least once a day. Carry the bed-clothing into the open air, if dry weather, if not into another  room. If the patient is unable to sit up, in the meanwhile, let others be supplied. Keep the room quiet and in perfect order. Address the patient gently, and any conversation that may be allowed, be pleasant and cheering in tone. Never tell discouraging stories. Never whisper in the room. All vials and powders should be labelled to prevent mistakes. Daily sponge baths should be made use of where the case admits. Change the garments frequently and rinse the mouth often. A pleasant and agreeable nurse should always be chosen. Never dispute with a very sick person, nor reprove him for any inconsistency. Remember he is not a responsible being. Contagious diseases need still greater precautions. Small pox, scarlet fever and diphtheria particularly. Remove the patient to a separate apartment, as near the top of the house as possible, from which remove curtains, carpets, bed-hangings, all woollen articles, and other needless articles. Wooden chairs, a table, a plain single bed and a lounge for the convenience of the nurse, are all the needful articles. Afterward everything that is not disinfected should be burned. No one should be admitted to the room except the medical attendant and nurse. Chloride of lime and other disinfectants should be plentifully used, and a little chloride of lime solution should be put in the water that the nurse uses for bathing her hands. Rinse in pure water. Disinfectants. -- Coffee roasted, ground and sprinkled on live coals or a hot shovel is one of the best known disinfectants, removing instantly all manner of animal and vegetable effluvia. Simply putting the ground roasted coffee on plates, in rooms to be disinfected is very successful, and sprinkling in drains or sinks. Onions sliced and put in a sick-room where there is any contagious disease are a valuable antiseptic. Replace every hour with a fresh one, burning the old. It is astonishing the rapidity with which one will shrivel away. It has been repeatedly observed that an onion-patch in the immediate vicinity of a house acts as a shield against pestilence, but during an epidemic a confirmed eater should, however, eschew his usual diet, as the germs of the disease are present in the onions and contagion may easily result. Outside the door of the sick-room suspend a sheet so as to cover the entire doorway. This should be kept constantly wet with a solution of chloride of lime. This will keep every other part of the house free from infection. To Cool a Sick-room when oppressively warm, hang wet towels or canvas in windows and doors. This will speedily lower the temperature five or six degrees, besides rendering the air moist and agreeable. Charcoal is an invaluable antiseptic used in sickrooms or crowded sleeping rooms. A dozen pieces the size of hazel-nuts placed in a saucer and daily moistened with boiling water, will, in the course of a week, have gathered their own weight in impurities, when they should be burned and fresh taken.


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