Pain and weakness caused by weak nerves was considered typically English in the 1600s and 1700s. Gentleman of leisure Horace Walpole wrote to a friend in 1742: ‘I am afraid I have a little fever upon my spirits, or at least I have nerves, which you know everybody has in England.’ Until the 1800s, medicine to treat weak nerves involved herbal substances found in any apothecary’s shop. However, illnesses such as nervous breakdown and neurasthenia became widespread in the 1800s throughout industrialising countries of Europe and North America. Medical entrepreneurs, responding to this growing market for nerve medicine, patented and bottled nerve tonics made from secret recipes. ‘Tonic’ reflected a popular, though outdated, medical understanding that organs needed firmness, or ‘tone’, to work best. In this case those organs were nerves.
The variety of competing nerve tonics was enormous. This reflected the fact they were one of the few affordable treatments for nervous breakdown and neurasthenia. They had names such as Antineurasthin, Wincarnis, Hall’s Wines, Sanotogen, Tidman’s Sea Salt, VISEM, BYNO, Glycolactophos, Armbrecht’s Coca Wine and Bromocarpine. Many of these tonics used potent, poorly understood and often addictive ingredients. These included strychnine, morphine, opium, quinine, lithium salts and cocaine. Many nerve tonics were banned in the early 1900s when new laws required patent medicines to specify their ingredients.
BibliographyJ Oppenheim, ‘Shattered Nerves’: Doctors, Patients, and Depression in Victorian England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991)
A naturally occurring drug derived from trees. In small doses strychnine functions as a central nervous system stimulant, but in higher doses it is extremely poisonous.
A painkilling drug derived from opium. Morphine is used in hospitals around the world due to its relative lack of side effects.
A drug derived from the opium poppy. It has been used to cause sleep and provide pain relief for many centuries.
A substance taken to fight malaria. Quinine is found naturally in the bark of the cinchona tree. It is also an ingredient in tonic water.
White, crystalline powder extracted from the leaves of the coca plant. Once used as a local anaesthetic, it is now an illegal drug. It is habit-forming and harmful to the body.