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'Pills & Tablets' box, London, England, 1916

This tin box was probably part of a much larger first aid kit or medicine chest used during the First World War. The drugs in the box include opium for pain relief, quinine hydrochloride for malaria, and calomel with colocynth. Both calomel and colocynth have antiseptic qualities but when taken together they purge the body by causing vomiting. Calomel is also a drug associated with the treatment of the venereal disease syphilis – a major problem during the First World War.

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    Glossary: medicine chest

    Small chests fitted for bottles and intended to hold medical supplies; of a type made in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

    Glossary: colocynth

    No description.

    Glossary: opium

    A drug derived from the opium poppy. It has been used to cause sleep and provide pain relief for many centuries.

    Glossary: malaria

    Parasitic disease transmitted by certain kinds of mosquito. Malaria is characterized by fever and enlargement of the spleen. Each year, there are approximately 515 million cases of malaria, killing between one and three million people.

    Glossary: quinine

    A substance taken to fight malaria. Quinine is found naturally in the bark of the cinchona tree. It is also an ingredient in tonic water.

    Glossary: antiseptic

    A chemical that destroys or holds back the growth of bacteria and harmful micro-organisms. It can be used to cleanse skin wounds and treat some internal infections if it is sufficiently non-toxic.

    Glossary: calomel

    A white powder that is an example of a mercury compound. It was formerly swallowed and used as a laxative.