June 04, 2006

Science: A Medical Immortal

Here Lockyer lies, interr'd enough; his name
speaks one hath few competitors in fame:
A name so great, so Generally may scorne
Inscriptions which doe vulgar tombs adorne;
A dimunition 'tis to write in verse
His eulogies, which most mens mouths Rehearse
His virtues and his PILLS are soe well knowne
that envy can't confine them under stone
But they'll survive his dust and not expire
Till all things else at th' universal fire.
This verse is lost, his PILL enbalms him safe
To future times without an epitath:

Repair'd October 1741

Deceast Aprill (ye) 26th
Anno Do: 1672
Aged 72

This was the epitath of one Lionel Lockyer, a famous doctor operating in London, and can be found inside Southwark Cathedral. Included with this marvellous writing is a life-size, recumbent figure of the good doctor: as he could afford such a memorial, it's obvious his pills sold extremely well! Yes, someone (I suppose the mason) decided to include when the monument was repaired on the memorial itself. Now, Lockyer was a very good salesman, so either he wrote this epitath for his own immortality, or some remaining family member/business partner did to keep the money rolling in.

So, what exactly were his pills? No one really kows, of course, that being a well guarded secret. They were called "Pillulae Radiis Solis Extractae", and were described by a contemporary William Johnson as containing "Vitrum Antimonii", a medicine that made many appearances at the time (1665). Okay, so what the heck does that mean?

Well, antimony is used in medicine nowadays as a compound ingredient for some antiprotozoal agents and emetics (meaning things that kill parasites and/or make you hurl). And "vitrum" means one of two things: either "glass" or "woad". Given that these were pills, I'm more inclined to chose the latter, which may have been used as a more general term to describe the medium that the medicine was given in than the medicine itself (i.e. it probably wasn't actually isatis tinctoria).

Ah, but how did the good doctor describe his pills? He used what many, many quacks, charlatans, and fakes have done in a time honoured tradition: they pretended to know what they were talking about. Look again at the words above, and see if you can figure out what he is selling: Pillulae Radiis Solis Extractae. Looks like latin, and all the big medical types speak latin, so he must be smart and stuff! But wait! You can work out what it is if you try...

Pillulae: knowing he sells pills, that must be what this means. Radiis? We'll get back to that one. Solis too. Extractae is obviously an extract of something. Solis... Sol... Sun? An extract of sun? That's just ridiculous - oh, wait, radiis must mean rays! So it's an extract of the sun's rays, not the sun itself, of course! We can read all about it in his pamphlet An Advertisement Concerning those Most Excellent Pills Called Pilulae Radiis Solis Extractae. Being an Universal Medicine. The point of the advertising, which was much aided by Lockyer, was to leave the impression of the power of the sun's rays being harnessed into these little pills, which would then cure you of everything you could possibly have wrong with you.

I hesitate regarding the accuracy of the translation, but I have my doubts. Solis is the only word that's completely accurate, and the others are questionable at best. But the real selling point of the name of the pills is that, well, it sells. If you, the salesman, can help the customer along with a little explanation of how your medicine works, then they feel just as smart as you while they hand over their money. Even better, since parasites were a common affliction, antimony couldn't have hurt. And since people didn't change their diet or water source, the problems they had came back, encouraging them to buy those pills that made them feel so much better last time...

Let me know if this sounds familiar at all, eh?


posted by Thursday at 8:25 pm


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