Freeman’s Syrup of Phosphorus, 1884

J. T. Hensing discovered phosphorus in the brain in 1719, and opened the way to a later slew of phosphorus-based medical compounds claiming to be good for the brain. Of course, in the grand tradition of Victorian cure-all pharmaceuticals, they were also claimed to be good for a big long list of other ailments too. One of these was Freeman’s Syrup of Phosphorus as seen below in an advert from 1884. It’s from Hieroglyphic magazine – although it’s not really a magazine, it’s a promotional material for a company called Goodall’s, who sold this syrup, along with a lot of foodstuffs,like custard and baking ingredients. And it’s where I got my Victorian plum pudding recipe, here –

Hieroglyphic, 1884

Hieroglyphic, 1884

A “syrup of phosphorus”, which could have been this one, was described in the British Pharmacopea in 1885 as being a compound of phosphoric acid, sodium phosphate and iron sulphate. Some phosphorus-based medicine caused more damage than good – I’m not sure if this was one of them. In any case, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the miracle worker it claims, which even by Victorian standards, strikes me as almost sarcastically outrageous. A brain and nerve tonic; supplier of new and fresh blood; curer of depression, indigestion, constipation and the previously considered incurable diseases of consumption and wasting disease; useful for those involved in brain-work; even fine for delicate women and babies; and, most incredibly, will add twenty years to your life – “None now need despair of life.”

Looking for a bit more information about this brought me to the always brilliant Old Bailey archives, whose Victorian transcripts often read like crime novels in themselves. Here, a case was brought against Sarah Ann Louis and Walter Stafford for “…feloniously having in their possession 41 threepenny stamps which had been mutilated.” It seems these two were responsible for distributing Freeman’s Syrup, as well as the more popular Jenner’s Syrup of Phosphorus too – maybe they were the same thing. What I love is the discussion around naming medications after fictional doctors – “…it is not unusual for a patent medicine to have a doctor’s name to it, like Dr Townsend’s Sarsparilla, Dr Buchan’s pills, and Dr Coffin’s.” Ah, Dr Coffin’s medicine, the obvious choice for a fictional, yet reassuring, name.

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