Remember the time when every home had a cupboard with a shelf containing the ‘medicines’? These consisted of a bottle of iodine, syrup of figs, castor oil and a packet of Beecham’s pills (or powders).
The iodine was applied to cuts or abrasions and was to ward off infection. Castor Oil was a universal cure, but especially for headache and stomach pains. Then there was bread and linseed poultices for boils and skin infections, hot olive oil for earache, and cod liver oil, sulphur and treacle (usually taken in the Spring) to help clear the blood.
All this was on top of traditional cures, for example, boiled dandelion for skin ailments, an ivy leaf on bunions to ease pain, and goose fat applied to sprains and injuries.
Before the advent of penicillin and other antibiotics there were many killer diseases, the worst (taking at times up to thirty per cent of lives, especially of the poor who lived in damp and over-crowded conditions) being T. B. (tuberculosis, usually called consumption). There were, for most of the first half of the twentieth century, special sanatoria throughout Ireland to confine T.B. sufferers away from the rest of the population.
Others sometimes fatal diseases were diphtheria, meningitis, whooping cough and rickets. Visiting doctors carried in their strong leather bag, a little black saucepan in which to boil their instruments.
The post-War introduction of the National Health Service tolled many changes for the better. Concerned for the general health of the nation, the Government built and expanded hospitals and even provided some medicines free. Then there was family allowances. Even before penicillin some diseases that had been exacerbated by hunger and poverty were coming under control. For a time, as one wag put it, ‘even our greyhounds were fed on free cod liver oil’.