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Not much fun on Christmas Day 1911

By Andrew Haynes

Christmas Day 1911 cannot have been much fun for Captain Robert Scott. derek rogers/dreamstime.comHaving trudged across the Great Ice Barrier and conquered the frozen slopes of the Beardmore Glacier, he and seven companions spent most of 25 December struggling over the Antarctic polar plateau towards the South Pole.

Scott’s journals record no overnight visit from Father Christmas, but the day nevertheless began reasonably well, as Antarctic treks go. At first, the men crossed fresh snow “in fine style”. But after a while they found themselves slowing as the terrain grew increasingly difficult. They managed seven miles before stopping for their Christmas lunch, which included “sundry luxuries, such as chocolate and raisins”.

Pemmican and hoosh

After lunch they yomped on until they had clocked up 15 miles. They pitched camp and prepared their Christmas dinner. “We had four courses,” wrote Scott: “The first, pemmican, full whack, with slices of horse meat flavoured with onion and curry powder and thickened with biscuit; then an arrowroot, cocoa and biscuit hoosh sweetened; then a plum-pudding; then cocoa with raisins, and finally a dessert of caramels and ginger. After the feast it was difficult to move. Wilson and I couldn’t finish our share of plum-pudding.”

Hoosh was a thick mush, usually meat-based, made by simmering various rations with melted snow. Pemmican was a processed food based on native North American recipes and designed to be compact, nutritious and long-lasting — although not appetising. It basically consisted of pounded dried meat mixed with animal fat.

The thickening agent for the curried onion gravy was made by pulverising some of the hard biscuits that were then a major element of Antarctic food rations. They were specially made for polar exploration by the biscuit company Huntley & Palmer. Designed to boost stamina, they included milk protein as well as carbohydrate. Unfortunately, with nutritional science still in its infancy, they lacked other vital nutrients such as minerals and vitamins.

As Scott and his companions ate they were unaware that not far away a five-man Norwegian party led by Roald Amundsen was celebrating Christmas with a simple meal of porridge made from crushed biscuits and dried milk. They probably did not mind such a spartan dish, since they were on their jubilant way home after becoming the first men to reach the pole some 10 days earlier.

On that Christmas Day Scott was some eight weeks into his own attempt on the pole. Twelve candidates for the final dash had set off from Scott’s base camp, but three days before Christmas he had sent four back, and three days into the new year he was to order a further three to return.

The remaining five men reached the pole on 17 January 1912, only to learn that Amundsen had beaten them by more than a month. Despondent, they started on the 800-mile return leg. But after completing most of the journey they ran into severe weather when the Antarctic winter arrived unusually early. Their tragic fate is well known. It was not until eight months later, early in the next Antarctic summer, that a search party managed to reach Scott’s tent and discover the bodies inside it.

Medicine chests

And now for the pharmacy bit. Beside the frozen bodies lay the party’s two medicine chests, supplied to the expedition by Burroughs Wellcome & Co, a London company founded by two expatriate Americans in 1880. This was the beginning of a golden age of exploration, and the company provided many adventurers with medicine chests. In the closing years of the 19th century Burroughs Wellcome medicine chests were carted off to Africa by the explorers David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley. And at the beginning of the 20th century they were carried to Antarctica on Scott’s two expeditions and on three led by Ernest Shackleton.

Burroughs Wellcome made no charge for its medical supplies. Instead, it benefited from the explorers’ endorsements of its products. In particular, the adventurers appreciated the compact and robust nature of the company’s innovative Tabloid-brand compressed tablets, which were much better suited for use on expeditions than the bulky and unstable liquids and powders offered by rival manufacturers. In some of its advertising, Burroughs Wellcome used photographs taken by Scott’s “camera artist”, Herbert Ponting, whose photographic chemicals were also supplied free by the company.

Among the items remaining in Scott’s medicine chests when they were recovered was a Burroughs Wellcome product called Livingstone Rousers, named after its inventor, the aforementioned African explorer. He had devised the product to combat malaria. A dose contained 1 grain (65mg) each of quinine and calomel and 1.5 grains (100mg) each of powdered jalap and rhubarb. It may seem strange to take a tropical remedy to the Antarctic, but quinine was at the time also used as a general antipyretic, analgesic and anti-inflammatory. Livingstone Rousers were to remain on the market until the 1920s.

Other drugs still in Scott’s medicine chests included products for minor illnesses, such as cascara sagrada (a mild laxative derived from the bark of the North American buckthorn tree), ipecacuanha powder (obtained from a Brazilian plant and used for gastric irritation) and Dover powder (ipecacuanha and opium, for pain relief). These, plus other drugs that the explorers had consumed or discarded before they died, would have been part of a basic selection from a wider range of drugs available at Scott’s base camp.

One Burroughs Wellcome product likely to have been in the medicine chests at the start of the polar trek, but no longer there when the chests were recovered, was Forced March Tabloids. It was probably carried on all British Antarctic expeditions because, according to its label, it “allays hunger and prolongs the power of endurance”. The claim was not an empty boast since the product’s main ingredients were “the combined active principles of Kola Nut and Coca Leaves” — in other words, caffeine and cocaine (also the original active ingredients of Coca-Cola, devised by US pharmacist John Pemberton in 1886).

At the time of Scott’s expedition there was no UK legislation to control the sale of cocaine, so Forced March Tabloids could be bought freely over the counter. Such was their reputation — partly derived from their endorsement by polar explorers — that in the 1914–18 war they were issued to British soldiers to help them combat fatigue.

A century ago there would have been no research into drug stability in polar conditions. But Scott’s Tabloids were probably more stable than liquid preparations. Liquids would mainly have been in the form of concentrated extracts or alcoholic tinctures, diluted as necessary with melted snow. Freezing could have affected stability, but even at the South Pole there would have been no danger of tinctures solidifying because ethanol has a freezing point of –114C.

Even today, there seems to be a lack of research into maintaining the integrity of drugs at very low temperatures. The requirements for stability studies in international drug testing agreements are based on the range of climates found across Europe, Japan and North America and are mainly concerned with the effect of heat. Testing at very low temperatures is not required unless the manufacturer intends the drug to be stored below –20C. However, since modern Antarctic researchers probably spend most of their time in climate controlled accommodation, their drugs will not be greatly affected by the polar weather.

Shackleton’s supplies

I have not tracked down a full inventory of the drugs taken on Scott’s journey, but it can be assumed that the contents of his medicine chests were similar to those carried by Ernest Shackleton’s 1907–09 British Antarctic Expedition and described in his book, ‘The heart of the Antarctic’. Shackleton recorded that on his own attempt on the pole, which he had to abandon within 100 miles of his goal, his medical equipment and stores weighed a total of seven pounds (just over 3kg). These supplies included 21 medicinal preparations drawn from a range of more than 50 held at his base camp.

Many of the drugs Shackleton carried towards the pole were for gastrointestinal complaints. They included soda mint (an antacid), ginger essence (a carminative), “laxative pills”, aloin compound (another laxative) and three products used mainly for treating diarrhoea — aromatic chalk and opium, chlorodyne (chloroform and morphine tincture) and bismuth, pepsin and charcoal. Another possible antidiarrhoeal was zinc sulphate, but this compound was also used for nervous disorders and as a topical astringent.

Several more products were central nervous system drugs. Among these were ammonium bromide, used as a sedative, and sulphonal, a hypnotic. Analgesic and antipyretic substances included morphine sulphate, sodium salicylate and quinine bisulphate. Although the quinine could have been used as an appetite stimulant, because of its bitter taste, the party also carried two preparations specifically marketed as tonics — iron and arsenic composition and Tabloids of Easton’s syrup, which contained strychnine, iron phosphate and quinine.

Other supplies included boric acid and perchloride of mercury (mercuric chloride), both probably employed as antiseptics, and potassium chlorate, possibly for use as a gargle.

Another item is described as “eye Soloids”. Soloid, like Tabloid, was a Burroughs Wellcome brand name, and this description presumably refers to a product used for treating minor eye conditions.

Finally, the inventory included cocaine hydrochloride and Hemasins (adrenalin). Rather than being used as a stimulant, the cocaine may have been for local anaesthesia, and the adrenalin could have been used to potentiate its anaesthetic effect.

Antarctic medicines today

So how do the meagre medical supplies of 100 years ago compare with those taken on 21st century Antarctic expeditions? Having bored readers with the list set out above, it would be tiresome to itemise all the medicinal products carried on polar treks nowadays. Let me just say that they tend to include at least 50 items, among which are modern gastrointestinal products, analgesics, antihistamines and antibiotics, along with various topical preparations for eye, mouth and skin problems.

Having access to products such as antibiotics must give the modern-day adventurer a level of confidence that was not available to the polar explorer of 100 years ago. But now that the polar regions are no longer the sole province of macho males, it must also be reassuring that the field supplies carried by 21st century Antarctic explorers and researchers include condoms, contraceptive pills and emergency hormonal contraception — none of which would have been of any use on Scott’s polar expedition.

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal URI: 11091730

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