The little brown notebook is warped with water damage. It’s small enough to fit into a coat pocket and about 100 pages thick. Inside is local medical knowledge from a long time ago. It is all carefully written in script that is mostly still legible today.
On the inside front cover is a quick primer on the apothecaries’ system of measurement: 20 grains in a scruple, three scruples in a dram, eight drams in an ounce. This is handy because most of the recipes for cures are given in grains.
The one of the first medicines in the book is “for a swelling from cold.” It contains 30 grains of calomel, a chemical containing mercury, and 40 grains of jalap, a medicine made from the powdered root of a type of morning glory vine. Both were fairly popular drugs in the 19th century, and neither are in common use today. These drugs were to be “made in 24 pills for a person 14 to 16 years, three pills given every morning.”
Many of the medicines noted in the book are oddly specific, like a dosage specifically for people 14-16 years old. In fact, the very next cure is for “the dry belly ache such as the woman Judy had.” Many of the early cures are attributed to a Dr. Allaway. Many combine chemicals with plant remedies.
What is this odd book? Who wrote it? When is it from? The book contains a list of medicines sent to Mr. Lucas Percival, who lived on St. Martin from 1809 to 1877. This would date it to perhaps the mid-1800s on St. Martin. Later in the book, though, the handwriting changes and the language switches from English to French. Perhaps it is the work of multiple people recording cures over a longer period of time.
The cures themselves are mostly not things one would recommend today. Many include things we now known are poisons, like mercury and lead. But it is a unique window into life on the island in the past. This little book tells us what ills bedeviled residents at that time. And it tells us that doctors had little to offer that would help. Back then medicines were mixed at home from ingredients ordered from New York, and it was wise to write down medical recipes in case a doctor wasn’t around for the next obstinate fever or case of jaundice.
Every single page of this book may have something unique to tell us about the history of St. Martin and how life was lived here. We will continue to explore its pages. Have you ever seen a book like this? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or [email protected]