Posted by: Bystander PJ6 OCT 2011
Continuing my series of pieces on the arms of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, I come now to the device of the stag. The heraldic description includes the terse phrase, “on a Chief Azure a Stag lodged also of the First”, which may be translated as, “on the mid-blue upper part of the shield, a golden stag, lying down and facing left”. (The phrase “of the First” means gold because that is the first colour mentioned in the shield’s description.)
As with the shield’s other devices, the Society’s founders left no indication as to why they chose a stag. The animal once had a range of symbolic meanings and was linked with purity, strength, fortitude and fleetness.
And stags had a link with healing in that they were thought to know which medicinal plants to take to shake off the hunter’s arrows. A person bearing a stag symbol was once thought impervious to weapons.
But the stag was probably chosen by the Society to signify the animal content of many medicines of the 19th century and earlier, just as the aloe device elsewhere on the shield represents herbal ingredients.
Stags of Britain’s native red deer (Cervus elephas) were a source of several medicinal substances, derived mainly from the antlers (hartshorn) but also from bones and hooves. Hartshorn jelly, an aqueous decoction of burnt antler, was used for diarrhoea and dysentery.
Destructive distillation of antlers and bones produced oil of hartshorn. This could be further distilled to make salt of hartshorn, which consisted mainly of ammonium chloride (sal ammoniac) and ammonium carbonate. Salt of hartshorn was used to induce sweating in fevers and as a smelling salt.
Dissolving the salt in water produced spirit of hartshorn, a strong aqueous solution of ammonia that was used mainly as a detergent and preservative but also found use in treating insect bites, snake bites and styes and, by inhalation, sunstroke.
So, even though the stag might at first seem to have no link with pharmacy, there are clear connections to be found.