Dispensing treatment to the town’s sick

The Almshouses in Cottingwood Lane.
The Almshouses in Cottingwood Lane.

Morpeth Dispensary was founded in 1816 for the relief of the indigent sick and lame.

Many doctors and surgeons in the town worked for the Dispensary free of charge, but there was also a Resident Apothecary and House Surgeon, who was salaried and lived at the Dispensary.

A loose sheet in a prescription book for 1859-63, now at Woodhorn, tells us that 988 patients were admitted in 1861.

Of these, 948 were cured, 39 relieved, 38 died, and 55 remained on the books.

Woodhorn also has an earlier prescription book belonging to Dr Robb, one of the Honorary Surgeons.

It begins in June 1840 and runs on to 1847.

I have notes from it on 46 patients, a small sample, but probably reasonably representative.

All 46 seem to have lived in Morpeth. Country patients were probably visited by the honorary surgeons on their normal rounds, but there is no definite evidence on this point.

Entries generally state the patient’s name, age and medicines prescribed, but not their illness, except insofar as one can guess it from the medication.

Seven were under 14, including a three-month old baby; 14 were aged 15 to 49, and 16 were 50 or more. The ages of nine others are not given, but probably all adults. They comprised 23 females and 20 males, and three children whose gender is not stated.

Exactly half, 23, lived in the Poor House. This was not, I think, the Union Workhouse in Newgate Street, but more likely the old poor-house in Cottingwood Lane.

It was closed in 1837, but later converted into almshouses ‘for aged persons not receiving parish relief’.

The doctors did not give patients a page to themselves, but put several on one page, a few lines each, continuing on a later page when necessary.

Despite an index and other helps, it is not easy to follow any one patient’s history. Bad writing and abbreviated Latin naturally make it even more difficult.

The Dispensary dealt with two-thirds of its patients in two months or less, many with only one or two visits.

At the other extreme, 17 per cent needed almost constant attention.

Six patients aged 70 or more accounted for 115 months of treatment, often with the patient attending twice every week.

The first entry in the book is for John Cross, age 70, ‘Ab 245’ – ‘From p. 245’, showing that his case was ongoing from a previous book.

He suffered mainly from bronchitis and constipation, but was prescribed other medicines too, including in October 1841, ‘hirudines’ – leaches.

Despite chronic ill-health, he needed no treatment during the summer months of 1840, 1841 and 1842.

He was never cured, but was twice pronounced ‘Relieved’.

Jane Irving, 90, Poor House, Ab 225, attended in June-July 1840. She then had a gap of three months followed by 31 months of continuous treatment. She died in May 1843.

Like others, her treatment was mostly for bronchitis, ‘Mist Pect.’, chest mixture, and constipation, ‘Pil Aper’, opening pills.

She had other medicines, but the most common entry is ‘Rep Mist et Pils’, ‘Repeat mixture and pills’.

Henry Cockran, 78, Ab 239, had bronchitis with occasional constipation.

His attendances became frequent from December 1840 onwards, and he died in November 1841.

Jane Quin, 84, had just under two years of treatment before dying in May 1842. Her conditions and treatment were as above, with occasional variations.

John Brown, 70, Poor House, died in August 1841 after 13 months of treatment. He too was bronchial, but the medicines were different, mainly ‘Tn Camp Co’, compound tincture of camphor, which contained opium as well as camphor.

He was once prescribed ‘Unq Sulph’, ointment of sulphur, used for skin conditions, and at other times ‘Aqu Menth’, peppermint water, and ‘Sp Lavand’, spirit of lavender, made with alcohol. Both were for relieving wind and gripes.

Shortly before he died he was given ‘Emp Sapon’, soap plaster. This contains lead, and was perhaps again for a skin condition.

Ann Green, 72, Poor House, Ab 183, had only six months of treatment and was cured. Bearing in mind that the previous book had over 240 pages, she was clearly for the most part fit and well.

Only three adults of working age needed anything like that much attention.

Charles Thirkeld, 26, had treatments lasting 12 months and one month.

He was given laxatives: – pills of aloes; senna; and magnesium sulphate, or Epsom salts; and compound infusion of gentian, which my Manual of Materia Medica, 1887, describes as ‘An excellent bitter tonic’.

Early on he was prescribed ‘App emp lytt lat ped’. I take ‘lytt’ to be a careless writing of ‘lyth’, abbreviated Latin for litharge, or lead oxide. If so, it means ‘Apply lead plaster to side of foot’.

The doctor also gave him ointment of spermaceti, ‘A cool and emollient dressing for raw surfaces’.

He later had iodine ointment, possibly for enlarged glands or joints. Either way, he was cured twice over.

Margaret Loughton, 46, Ab 234, needed continuous treatments of six months and four months, being twice pronounced cured. Her medicines were mostly laxatives, but she was also given a warming plaster for the back (‘Emp calid dors’) and later on, a liniment.

Julia Rhodes, 34, had treatment continuously from August 1840 to June 1841

She too had a lead plaster, also a strengthening plaster to the back (‘Emp rob dors’), and ‘Emp calid dors’. Also ‘Pil aper’, rhubarb powder, and Epsom salts.

In January she had six leeches, and in May, ‘Dens exts’, a tooth out.

She made four visits from August to November, after which, evidently for the report to the AGM, she was pronounced cured.

But it was not to be. She was back in January for further treatment.

Some old people did get better quickly. Margaret Prior, 70, was cured in little more than a week.

She needed occasional treatments between February and July 1841 for back trouble (‘Emp Robor Dors’, ‘Emp Calid Dors’), and again in January-February 1842.

In April she suffered a wound to the head, but once again made a quick recovery.

Amongst the younger patients in 1840, the child of a mother called Isabel Park, 23, was merely vaccinated, while George Aynsley, 16, and one Carse, 24, were both cured of constipation.

In March 1841 Ann Smailes, nine, was given ‘Pulv Aper’, opening powder, and was likewise cured.

Another nine-year-old, Mary Green, had the same treatment in May.

In October she was given an astringent medicine, one that tightens up the part affected and reduces its secretions. She was cured, but came back in April 1843 and was again given a laxative.

Acknowledgements: Pictures from Alec Tweddle’s Town Trail No. 5. I am grateful to Dr Paul Crook for reading this article in draft. Any remaining inaccuracies are mine entirely.