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Albarello drug jar for Sublimate of Mercury, Italy, 1501-1800

Mercury compounds were traditional treatments for syphilis – a once very common, potentially deadly venereal disease. But this toxic treatment slowly poisoned the patient. Sublimate of Mercury, if soaked into a piece of cloth and carried next to the heart, was also believed to protect against plague. The earthenware drug jar has a badge painted on the side, probably referring to an Italian pharmacy.

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Glossary: drug jar

A (usually earthenware) container designed to hold apothecaries' ointments and dry drugs.

Glossary: plague

An acute contagious fever with high levels of mortality. Both the 'Black Death' that swept Europe in the 1340s and the Great Plague of London in 1665 are believed to have been bubonic plague.

Glossary: syphilis

A sexually transmitted infection resulting in the formation of lesions throughout the body.

Glossary: sexually transmitted infection

Any disease transmitted by sexual intercourse. STIs include HIV/AIDS, syphilis, gonorrhoea, some chlamydia infections and genital herpes.

Glossary: pharmacy

The preparation and medicinal dispensing of drugs.