28 Jan 2020

Apothecary Anecdotes: Doctor Quicksilver, a castaway and an English pub with a Welsh name

Ardd Fotaneg · Botanic Garden

Almost hidden in the Apothecary’s Hall, between the counter display and the mortars and pestles, is a small display case labelled “Burroughs Wellcome & Co.”

It has within it a number of small bottles containing various compressed tablets.  These were called “Tabloids” by the company in the late 1880s.   Within a few years the word had been picked up to describe a newspaper that had its stories in a compressed or condensed form.

Several years ago, we were asked by the Wellcome Trust museum at Euston to supply them with photos of our “Tabloid Box”, as it was believed to be one of the best specimens known at that time.

Now, on one of the lower shelves in the box is a bottle of “Dovers Pills”.  These were created by Doctor Dover, a Doctor in Bristol, around 1732, and contained opium and  ipecacuanha. The idea was that, if you overdosed on the pills, you would vomit and get rid of the overdose!  The pills and powders were extensively used from the 1700s until at least 1956, for colds and fevers.

Doctor Dover’s medications seemed to involve mercury or copious bloodletting.  Whether by luck or judgement, he seemed to have a lot of success with these methods, although he soon acquired the disparaging nickname of Doctor Quicksilver.

In 1708, he bought into a share on a privateer (which was really piracy with a government licence!). As one of the largest contributors, he became Captain Dover. Because this ship and its sister that sailed with them carried surgeons, Dover was not expected to use his medical skills.

Early the following year, he was part of the crew that discovered a castaway sailor on one of the Juan Fernandez Islands in the South Pacific.  This castaway, who could outrun the goats that he used for food and clothing, was called Alexander Selkirk.  There is a story that, after the ships returned to Bristol, the writer Daniel Defoe met Selkirk in a pub in Bristol and used his story as the basis for “Robinson Crusoe“.

Welsh Connection

The pub, now closed, was called the Llandoger Trow by a Welshman who first owned it.  Llandogo is a village in Monmouthshire which made the flat-bottomed boats called “Trows” which were a popular type of transport around the waters of the Severn estuary.