New Arrivals in Liberia:
Chapter V: The Training
by Terence L. Johnson
Former Professor, African and African American History
Former Field Archivist
Link for Citation Purposes: https://bwwsociety.org/journal/archive/ba/new-arrivals-in-liberia-5.htm
Author's Note: The following story is based on accounts of real events from various newspaper and journal articles. Many scenes in this story have been dramatized with fictional accounts. Whenever possible, every attempt has been made to maintain the integrity of the events as they have been reported.
Dr. Bacon put my boy Cuffee, and a young man by the name of James E. Brown, (no relation), a boy named Taylor, and another man by the name of Chase to work to learn, how to not only make, but to also dispense medicines. I remembered one day when the boys all sat in the front room as Dr. Bacon walked back and forth as he gave them his study.
“As an Apothecary, your role here is to halt all the blind, all the palsies, dropsies, ulcers, consumptions, rheumatisms, scurvies, cutaneous diseases, lethargies, melancholies, and innumerable other maladies.”
My son raised his hand.
“What if we fail? What happens if our cures kill?”
I could see that the other students showed surprise that Cuffee would ask such an informed question.
Dr. Bacon took a jar of a white powder stored near a balance scale. He opened the jar and put some of the powder on one pan of the scale and then placed a small nugget of gold on the other pan.
“Cuffee, you must not hesitate to promise cures to nine-tenths of your cases. You must develop powers of observation in diagnosis and pathology, as a preparation for the therapeutic application of remedies.”
In his lectures, Dr. Bacon showed his knowledge of the problems of our colonization in a native land. He addressed his students.
“Cuffee Brown, Taylor, James Brown, Chase. A general characteristic of the great majority of the chronic cases which poured in upon me was debility, originating, in almost every instance, from low diet, insufficiency or sameness of aliment, and want of the comforts and necessaries of life.”
James Brown, who had studied some Apothecary while with his father as a small child, spoke.
“The slightest scratch or insect bite often refusing to heal, and rapidly degenerating into an indolent ulcer, generally most ghastly in appearance, and obstinate in continuance.”
Dr. Bacon put some
of the white powder on the scale and rubbed it in his gums. Then he began
“My son speaks the truth. That is the problem with disease in Africa. So little often works here.”
Then, Chase, one of Dr. Bacon’s other students said, “So is our purpose to hope for nature or some accident.”
The other students laughed.
“Young men, this is no laughing matter. We must rely often on improvement in diet to affect cures. Many in our colony suffer from some acute disease of a low sinking tendency, a grave which he hailed as a welcome release from his distress, and from his own loathsome body, long a burden to himself and to those round about him.”
I did not quite understand the means by which improvements in medicine would be achieved by these new Apothecary practitioners. But I hoped that my son would contribute greatly to this effort.
Months went by and Dr. Bacon’s students continued to learn the way of the Apothecary.
In the early hours of the morning, Bacon’s assistant practiced compounding chemist powders into lead mortar and pestle. I saw my son, Cuffee, and James Brown using a balance scale to measure a block of charcoal. The students studied “Joseph Price Remington’s A Treatise on the Modes of Making Cures.” The students also studied “Thomas Southwood Smith’s A Treatise on Fever.” Students in the Apothecary began to understand a fact that was repeated daily by Dr. Bacon as he leaned on his gold-headed cane.
“There is a direct relationship with poverty and epidemic fever. The want of food was combined with exposure to wet and damp weather, from insufficient clothing or from leaky, ruinous dwellings, consumptions and rheumatisms were the common diseases.”
Dr. Bacon stood up and made an important observation.
“Our concern here in Liberia is not diseases such as epilepsy, nor chorea, nor any of the ordinary convulsive or spasmodic maladies ever occurred in my practice.”
Dr. Bacon sat down and lay his cane to his side.
“I have lived in Liberia but a short time. Taylor, tell us more of what you have seen here.”
Taylor did what was commanded of him.
“We have diseases of suspended nervous power, two species were familiar, — paralysis, and lethargus, a frightful disease, stealing gradually upon the wretched victims, and insidiously absorbing and exhausting all their vital energy, without pain, anxiety, or consciousness on their part, till they, after lingering some months like breathing corpses, drop into the grave without a struggle.”
Dr. Bacon stood up and began to clap. Then I and the other students stood up and began to praise Taylor. In the coming months, Dr. David Francis Bacon taught the four prospects of the chemistry of Apothecary.
“Young men, the word prescription is derived from the Latin word prascribo, meaning before I write.”
I was sweeping up a flask that shattered in the back room of the Apothecary. I could overhear Dr. Bacon’s lecture to his four students.
Because my wife, my son, and I were very familiar with Latin. My son and I understood all too well what the Latin words meant.
Chase raised his hands.
“Yes, Chase?” questioned Dr. Bacon.
“The use of Latin in designating the ingredients of the prescription is obvious.”
Dr. Bacon looked at his students; Brown, Taylor, and my son Cuffee.
“Tell us more Mr. Chase. Why is the use of Latin so obvious?”
Chase stood up in front of the other students and created a recitation. A recitation that greatly left me troubled.
“It is the language of science and is understood, to a greater or less extent, throughout the civilized world. This language is frequently necessary, and always nearly the same in all countries. And it is also frequently necessary, and always advisable, to withhold from a patient the names and properties of the medicinal agents administered. This can usually be affected by the use of the Latin technical terms.”
As I worked in the back of Dr. Bacon’s Apothecary, unpacking and labeling glasses and vessels of various sizes, I wondered a lot about what I was hearing. I wondered why these practitioners desired their patients to be ignorant of the drugs that they would be given. No answer came to me from what I had heard. Bacon asked my son a question.
“Cuffee, describe the ingredients in a medicine?”
There was a little hesitation from my son to remember what he had learned from Dr. Bacon’s books and past lectures. Then a smile came upon Cuffee’s face.
“Well, the basis of the ingredients is known as the chief active ingredient. The adjuvant is the aid to the basis. This means that you have a substance that improved the effectiveness of the active ingredient. Then you have the vehicle, which is the ingredient that serve to “carry all,” or hold them together, dilute them, and give to the whole the proper consistency, form, and color. This is sometimes called the diluent.”
Cuffee then sat down.
Dr. Bacon smiled. “Well done Cuffee.”
The doctor turned and looked a James Brown.
“Brown, what else should we consider when compounding these substances?”
James Brown stood up and spoke: “The alkaloids are unquestionably the most important of all the organic compounds which are of interest to the pharmacist, the most active and potent remedies that he dispenses belonging to this class of principles.”
Dr. Bacon asked, “What is the caution when using alkaloids in a medicine?”
“Alkaloids are not always soluble and in concentrated doses may be poisonous. They may produce insoluble compounds.
Dr. Bacon asked him, “How do you solve this problem?”
“Combine the Alkaloid with an acid.”
“I want you to conduct a demonstration using real chemicals in detail, Taylor, with an example,” Dr. Bacon commanded.
Taylor rose from his seat and went to one of the shelves. He reached for a pint jar that contained a white powder. He put the powder on a table. He put on the table a small wooden bucket containing water next to a balance scale. Taylor then took a measuring flask and poured some water from the wooden bucket. He then placed on a balance scale a piece of parchment and then poured and measured a portion of white powder. Then he took the parchment and poured the powder into the liquid 180 grains.
“Taylor please tell the boys what you have just done,” commanded the doctor.
“The powder is Strychnine Sulphate. It is more soluble than Strychnine.
“How would you make this deliverable as a medicine?” asked Dr. Bacon.
“I would add to this solution with Strychnine Sulphate, and 180 Potassium Bromide a salt. Additional water could be added to this mixture as needed.”
Dr. Bacon smiled and asked the young men, “Does anyone here have anything more to add. Chase spoke up saying, “The system of double-checking prescriptions should be invariably followed wherever possible to ensure that it is compounded correctly.”
“What is there to learn from this?” questioned Dr. Bacon.
My son Cuffee came to where Taylor stood, next to the chemical mixture.
He picked up the mixture and stated, “The junior assistant cheerfully submitted to having his assistants checking off the ingredients and quantities which he has weighed or measured out himself, as a matter of principle and method.”
Dr. Bacon began to walk back and forth. Then he rubbed his beard.
“Gentlemen, is there anything else you need to add about this solution?”
As I stood in the next room, I could hear only silence from Dr. Bacon’s question.
I quickly came to suspect that something wrong was afoot.
“Have any of you discerned the problem? You have put your patient at risk.”
My son said to him, “Kind doctor, I am quite not sure what…”
Dr. Bacon cut Cuffee off.
“Gentlemen, an inexperienced pharmacist would unhesitatingly proceed to compound the above prescription. I will explain it in this way. A transparent solution of this kind was given to a woman. She carefully refrained from shaking the bottle, the strychnine precipitate formed in the bottom, and in taking the last dose she swallowed nearly all of it. The pure strychnine killed her. The mixture needed to be mixed more thoroughly so as to dilute the drug.”
As I continued to engage in my chores of keeping Dr. Bacon’s Apothecary orderly, I came to grasp why these druggists desired to control the practice and knowledge of the language and actual medicine from the common people. In time Brown, Chase, Taylor, and my son Cuffee became competent Apothecary assistants, ready to serve the suffering people of Liberia. Over the period of two months, Dr. David Francis Bacon and his assistants put their studies into action.
Publisher's Note: By special arrangement with the Author, all reader-remitted Membership Fees resulting from the story above, less processing expenses if any, will be forwarded to the Author as means of remuneration. -JP
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