Artifact Corner: Victorian Gel Capsules

Hi Everyone, and welcome back to another artifact corner. Today we will be looking at a package of Victorian gel capsules from the apothecary of Fannie Delord Webb Hall. Fannie set up her medical office in the back of the home to treat people, and we have a vast array of the medicines that she had. One of the pieces was this box of gel capsules, which was used to make some bitter or unpleasant medicines more palatable. Let’s learn a bit more about gelatin and the invention of gel capsules.

Gelatin is defined as a translucent, colorless, flavorless food ingredient, commonly derived from collagen taken from animal body parts. It is brittle when dry and rubbery when moist. The first recorded experiments into gelatin were done by a man named Denis Papin. In 1682 he discovered that you could boil animal bones and extract a glutinous material from them. Gelatin comes from the collagen found in the bones, connective tissue, and the skin of pigs, cattle, and other animals. Boiling the bones extracts the protein, which then “sets up,” or partially solidifies, as it cools. If you ever made soup, this is what produces the gelatinous, fatty layer on top of a pot of homemade animal stock.

So, how do we get from the discovery of gelatin to the gel capsule? Well in 1833, pharmacist Joseph Gérard Auguste Dublanc and his student François Achille Barnabe Mothes filed the first patent for a gelatin capsule. Their invention consisted of “bladders made of gelatin” – produced by dipping a gelatin solution into a small leather bag filled with mercury. The empty capsule form was filled with liquid-based medicines introduced by a pipette and then sealed with a drop of gelatin. Many of the drugs prescribed to patients in the 1800’s could irritate your mouth and throat. Some examples of ingredients and their cures are arsenic for anemia, strychnine for constipation, belladonna for colic in babies, mercury for skin conditions, cocaine for alcoholism, and heroine for coughing fits. All of these things are poisonous, and when you ingest poison, your body will try to get it out go you. The gel capsules would allow the “medicine” to get into your system. Now, this has been stated in other videos of ours, but just to remind everyone, please do not try any Victorian medicinal recipes at home.

Today we use gel coated medicine all the time. If you check you medicine cabinet, you’ll likely find some. These capsules are in very good condition, given their age. The box itself has faded due to exposure to light, but is still in good condition. It offers a fascinating glimpse into the medical practice of Fannie Delord Webb Hall, and we are so lucky to have it in our collections. Thanks so much for stopping by.

The following music was used for this media project:
Music: Sunny Morning by MusicLFiles
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