Paws for Thought

EDITOR’S NOTE: Paws for Thought columnist Janice Mitchell is a veterinarian at Island Animal Hospital and Little Current Veterinary Service.

Elixir of Life?

by Dr. Janice Mitchell

This month’s article is a trip back in time in the veterinary world. My friend/neighbour, who successfully raised and cared for farm animals for several decades asked me recently if I had ever heard of a veterinary medicine called “Wonder Drops.” I had not and my interest was piqued as it was explained to me that this tincture was used in boosting the energy in sickly pigs, cows, sheep or horses. Being a fan of the James Herriott stories (the famous Yorkshire Dales vet) and veterinary medicine pre-antibiotic/pre-gizmos/gadgets, I had to seek more information and what I found out was indeed a wonder. The actual name of these drops turned out to be Dr. Bell’s Veterinary Medical Wonder Drops. 

Dr. George Bell graduated from the Ontario Veterinary College (located in Toronto at that time) in 1880. He practiced veterinary medicine in the US for 15 years, then returned to Canada to open the Kingston Veterinary College (1895-1899), of which he was principal in 1895. He established his business in Kingston where he made both veterinary and human remedies.

Looking at images through an internet search, Dr. Bell’s Veterinary Medical Wonder Drops were available in a 6 dram (22 ml) embossed glass bottle. The label read: ‘DOSE BY DROPS – NO DRENCHING. A great remedy for the most common ailments of domestic animals. Used in the treatment of Pain, Colic, Inflammation of the Bowels or Kidneys, Stoppages of the Urine, Fevers, Chills, Coughs, Scours, Distemper, Azoturia, “Black Water,” Thumps, Shipping Fever, Tonic, Nervous Exhaustion.’

Dr. Bell’s was used as a sort of “cure all” but especially in the treatment of colic and inflammation and for cough and chills. The ingredients I was surprised to find were aconite, belladonna, digitalis and nux vomica. A potent little brew that certainly seemed to restore life to faded horses, cattle, sheep and pigs, according to the anecdotes of my friend and from online research. Dr. Bell’s Drops was a classic example of a homeopathic remedy. Homeopathic medicines are made from plant, chemical, mineral or animal sources whereby the original material is diluted. A basic belief behind homeopathy is “like cures like.” In other words, something that brings on symptoms in a healthy person or animal can—in a very small dose—treat an illness with similar symptoms.

It’s a good thing that the ingredients in these Wonder Drops are diluted because on their own in normal strengths, they are essentially poisons.

Aconite: a plant known as Monkshood, was a famous poison used in medieval murder mysteries (Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael stories come to mind). It drops temperature and pulse rates and causes facial paralysis. In homeopathy medicine, aconite has been used to treat anxiety, restlessness and acute sudden fever.

Belladonna, a plant also known as Deadly Nightshade, is derived from Italian and means “beautiful woman” because during the Renaissance the herb was used in eye-drops by women to dilate their pupils to make them appear seductive. It produces many effects in the body, including relief from spasms of the gastrointestinal tract and the bladder, therefore has been used to treat nausea, vomiting, and urinary tract inflammation. Belladonna has also been used to treat tremors and sweating. However, it can be poisonous as it will cause a rapid heart rate, respiratory failure, hallucinations, and convulsions.

Digitalis is a drug obtained from the dried leaves of the common foxglove and used as medicine to strengthen contractions of the heart muscle. Digitalis is most commonly used to restore adequate circulation in patients with congestive heart failure. However, again, it can be a poison as it has the potential to cause a complete heart block…thus earning it’s second name as “witch’s glove.”

The last of the wonder drop ingredients include nux vomica, or the strychnine tree.

Despite serious safety concerns, nux vomica has been used for diseases of the digestive tract, disorders of the heart and circulatory system, diseases of the lung, and as an appetite stimulant. But as most of us know, strychnine is used as a rodent poison, as it causes convulsions and thus death.

I asked my large animal specialist colleague Dr. Ted Delange if he had ever heard of this ‘wonder drop’ in all his years of experience. He had not, but had mentioned another human tincture remedy used in the early 1900s. It was a product for humans called Kohler’s One Night Cough Drops. It’s ingredient label included alcohol, cannabis indica, chloroform and morphine. Truly, to be humorous, a cure for cough as it is essentially ‘coma’ in a bottle!

These old-time elixirs are indeed fascinating. It makes me think of the expression ‘pick your poison.’ I am certain in another 100 years, the ‘then’ generation of veterinarians may look back on our current years, reflect on our treatments, and be just as amazed. I wonder, what will be the ‘wonder drops’ of our era?