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How many scruples in a drachm?

They’re with us all the time, but during election years we’re more likely to notice lobbyists, scurying between power lunches on K Street and the halls of Congress. Few have been more effective than those representing the pharmaceutical industry.

Somewhere much earlier in this blog, either Howard or I mentioned the evolution of the American drug store, especially during the 19th century, but I can’t recall now which of us it might have been. No matter.

“A few figs from thistles…”

Howard A. Tabor

Pharmacopeia

One winter when he was fourteen or fifteen, my dad had a very bad cold. Not pneumonia, mind you; just one of those sadistic, pertussive viruses that take more than a little satisfaction, even delight, in lingering well beyond their expiration date. So Dad’s grandmother Rachel (his mom’s mom), an “Old School” Presbyterian by upbringing and a seer by natural ability, took matters in hand.

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Theo Van Kannel the pharmacist was still holding forth at the Agincourt Sanitary Drug Co. he’d founded in the 1890s, a family operation that faultered when his only son and heir Dirk was killed at the Battle of Cantigny in World War I. Women found it difficult to enter the profession, which is odd, considering the lineage of female healers from the Greek goddess Circe to Crimean War nurse Florence Nightingale, so Dirk’s sisters pursued other careers. Our own Sissy Beddowes was still active, though, a Sac & Fox medicine woman whose knowledge of herbal remedies had warranted adjunct faculty status at the Chicago College of Homeopathy; Van Kannel is rumored to have consulted Mrs Beddowes as his equal in the medicinal arts. And such it was with Dad.

Mrs Beddowes was a regular guest at my great-grandmother Martha Tennant’s house, which must be where Sissy learned of father’s persistent cold and its full complement of symptoms. At Rachel Parks’ request, Sissy visited Theo Van Kannel for items not already in her personal arsenal of roots, leaves, flowers and seeds and together she and Van Kannel concocted a pill not known to modern science—a gobstopper worthy of Willy Wonka.

A pellet the size of a robin’s egg, color of arsenic and odor of linseed and wet dog, hand-rolled between two human palms—it was dutifully delivered, unsolicited, by great-grandmother Rachel, on all accounts a woman not to be denied. With luck, Dad’s taste buds had been dulled from days of sickness and milk toast, so there was no reliable report of the pellet’s taste. But within twenty minutes Dad was snoring between clean sheets and several feather comforters.

Twenty-four hours later—almost to the minute—he woke from the soundest and most refreshing sleep of his young life, the bed soggy with miasma of his sweat and him craving solid food for the first time in a week. Pounds lighter, he also confessed craving another of those pills. No one asked for a list of ingredients, though, speculation running to the fruit of the poppy long before Dorothy enjoyed its effects. Who knows what a repeat performance might have wrought. My Dad the junkie.

Knowledge isn’t wisdom and higher ground may be more valuable than higher education. Frankly, I’ve got sound advice from the Yellow Book, as well as the Good one.

Rachel Parks, Sissy Beddowes and Theo Van Kannel are gone now and, sadly, they took much of their wisdom with them. But, just as happily, modern medicine is awakening to the point of view they represented.

I’m glad to have heard this tale from Dad himself and to have passed it on to you.


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