Of Plenty and Paucity: Civil War Medicines and Their Makers

October 28, 2011 to April 9, 2012

At the beginning of the Civil War, medicine was at a crossroads.  Researchers were only beginning to recognize the role of microorganisms in causing disease and the importance of antiseptic conditions in surgery.  There were many competing theories of medicine in 1861, but a majority of doctors practiced medicine based on the centuries-old “four humors” theory.  This theory held that keeping the body’s four humors—black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood—in proper balance was the key to good health.  Doctors kept the humors in balance by bloodletting or administering purgatives or emetics to their sick patients.

Some doctors in the mid-1800s made their own drugs to give to patients, but increasingly, they sent prescriptions to apothecaries (also known as pharmacists) to fill.  Pharmacists had a wide range of training.  The Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, established in 1821, was the first of several pharmaceutical schools founded in the United States, but many pharmacists learned their trade through apprenticeships or just learned as they went.  Authoritative texts, known as dispensatories or pharmacopeias, provided instructions and standards for making medicines. There was little regulation of drugs. 

Both the Union and the Confederate governments established medical departments.  Medical purveyors were responsible for obtaining drugs and supplying them to hospitals and military units.  Both in the North and the South, the governments established laboratories to turn raw materials into medicine, and in the North private contractors also provided drugs.  Pharmacists or stewards were assigned to hospitals or attached to battalions in the field.  They usually made the actual pills, powders, syrups, ointments, and other medicines given to the sick and wounded.

Images of the exhibit are available from Special Collections on Flickr.

Curator: Bea Hardy, Director of Special Collections: Exhibit design and installation: Jennie Davy, Burger Archives Specialist, with installation assistance from Zara Fina Stasi, Undergraduate Student Volunteer.