Samuel Backler (1784-1870). A question of Bark

sam-backler-1784-baptismIn which we consider the life and early career of my 3x great grandfather, Samuel Backler, having reviewed the varied fortunes of his four half-siblings and nine siblings in previous posts.  We follow Samuel as he embarked on a career as an apothecary, like his father, grandfather and half brother John before him.  We see his fortuitous marriage to the eldest child of noted glassmaker Apsley Pellatt, and after what seems to have been an abortive apprenticeship, we witness Samuel setting up in business, perhaps armed with inside knowledge of the market for Peruvian Bark from his and his father’s association with the Society of Apothecaries.   

IMG_3340 (2)Early years: an apothecary apprentice and laboratory worker.  Samuel Backler was the second child and oldest son of Sotherton Backler (1746-1819) and his wife Hannah Osborne (approx 1763-1803).  He was born in Stoke Newington, and baptised at St Mary’s Church there. (The church, left, is ‘the old church’, no longer consecrated.)

No evidence as to Samuel’s education has come to light.  His older half brother John (c.1780 – 1846), and youngest sibling Sotherton (1798-1875), were educated at St Paul’s School, but there is no record of Samuel having been there, nor of him attending university. When he was just two years old the family faced sorrow.  Infant Thomas Backler, aged 8 months, was buried at St Andrew by the Wardrobe on 16 December 1786, followed just two weeks later on the 30th by Samuel’s 9 year old half brother Sotherton.  On 14 May 1791, Samuel’s 2 year old sister Elizabeth was also interred in the church, and to cap it all, his mother Hannah was buried in April 1803 at Bunhill Fields, aged about 40.

Samuel’s older brother John was apprenticed to their father, Sotherton Backler.  Samuel, however, was apprenticed in 1800 to Thomas Hall, but on Hall’s death in 1802, Samuel was released from his indentures and in 1805 gained the freedom of the Society by Patrimony.  The records show that he was in the service of the Laboratory Stock, established many years previously to oversee and control the quality of the manufacture of chemical and plant-based medicines. In 1843, he withdrew from the Society.  He had never fully qualified as an apothecary, though he was surely well trained in aspects of the art through his tenure in the laboratory. We will see that his subsequent career was to have many twists and turns.

Fortuitous marriage: Apothecaries’ Hall was located on Water Lane, very near to St Paul’s Cathedral, whose churchyard housed, among other residents and enterprises, the firm of Pellatt and Green, known as glassmakers to the King.  Here the names of Pellatt and Maberley enter my family tree, with the marriage in 1810 of our Samuel to Mary Pellatt, eldest child of Apsley Pellatt (1763-1826) (the third of six with that name) and his wife Mary Maberly.  The marriage linked two families prominent in their respective Livery Companies.  Apsley Pellatt had been Master of the Ironmongers Company.

screenshot-90Bedford Street Laboratory:  Following his marriage, Samuel set up his lab at Covent Garden’s Bedford Street.  Here he marketed a range of interesting lotions and potions, such as this one for Asthmatic Strontium Tobacco (The Morning Post, 10 October 1811).  Backler was in the forefront of the use of stramonium, derived from the common thorn-apple, in treating asthma.  The history of the use of smoking in treating asthma is fascinating, and can be explored through the following link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2844275/

A matter of Bark:  I speculate that another of Samuel’s treatments, Peruvian Bark, might well have been linked to activities at the Society of Apothecaries’ labs, which I was able to learn more about through some sessions a few years back in the Society’s Archives.

By the early 19th century, Peruvian Bark (Jesuits’ Bark; cascarilla; le remede anglais) – or the various forms of cinchona – had become key elements in the maintenance of health in the far-flung British Empire.  First recorded as being used for fever in South America in the 17th century, and thought to have been brought to Europe by the Jesuits, it had become an important trade item.  Historians continue to debate the origins of the name cinchona, once said to have been because of a cure of a fever in the Countess of Chinchon.  Its use in England dates from as early as 1658, when the ague had become endemic in the south-east.  However, its first use at that time resulted in the death of the Alderman of the City of London – not a good start![1]   A decade or so later, however, Robert Talbor (or Tabor) began to use a remedy which included the Jesuits’ powder.  He went on to use this cure across Europe and in the Court of Charles II.  It took some time for understanding to develop that Peruvian Bark was not effective for all fevers – only those of an intermittent nature, like malaria. And it was not until 1820 that Pelletier and Cavenout isolated the alkaloids quinine and cinchonine.[2]

It stands to reason that with such an important product, the Society would be involved in its preparation and sale as part of its trading activities.  The Laboratory Stock and Navy Stock companies had been engaged in trade throughout the 18th century, and in 1810, during the Peninsular Wars, an approach from the Army Medical Board opened the prospect of providing the Army’s medical supplies.

Questions of quantity and quality: The Archives show that a special meeting of the Court of Assistants was convened on 8 October 1810, to consider a letter from the Army Medical Board of 26 September in which the Society was informed of the Army’s intent to obtain its supplies from the Society – subject to the answers to a series of questions.  These included whether the Society could at short notice ensure a sufficient quantity of medicines ready packed to be immediately available, and whether the Society would consider having Depots at Plymouth, Portsmouth, Falmouth and elsewhere. The Army also wanted to know if supplies could be returned to the Society if they were not wanted.

The Society indicated that they would certainly be able to supply medicines for an Army of 30,000 men – at ten days notice. and every medicine to be delivered in a ‘most perfect state’ – but not from Depots, which would be removed from the Society’s methods of quality control.  There would be no question of receiving returned unwanted goods!

By Spring 1811, a further letter from the Army Medical Board raised questions about the quality of drugs imported from abroad, suggesting that it was said to be the custom of the druggists ‘after purchasing them in their original state from the Merchants, to assort and mix the different qualities previously to offering them for sale, so that it is difficult, if not impossible, to procure any of the genuine.’  They asked how the Company could ‘obviate this nefarious and dangerous practice’ with respect to Bark: ‘It is understood that the only species of Peruvian Bark which of late years have been imported of distinct fine quality are the Crown Bark and grey silver coated Bark in small quills, but that these are afterwards mixed by the Dealers with others.’  They wanted ‘to be informed whether all the Drugs that are used in a state of Powder are bought by the Company in the gross, and powdered under their own inspection, such as Ipecaccuanha and Jalap, as well as Bark.’

On 13 March 1811 came the reply (no doubt drafted by the Clerk to the Society, Samuel Backler’s father Sotherton Backler):

‘…They [Master and Wardens of this Society] beg to observe that their mode of dealing does not expose them to any of these Inconveniences, as the Drugs sent to them for purchase are (in the language of the Druggists, garbled, that is picked, before they receive them) that they buy by competition, and by sample, without knowing of whom ‘till the purchase is made and without Reference to price or anything but the perfection of the Article to be bought; … On the subject of Bark … [there are] three sorts, corresponding with the directions given them by the College of Physicians’.  These were Yellow Bark (cinchona cordifolia Cortex), quilled or pale Bark (the Crown Bark – cinchona lancifolia cortex), and Red Bark (cinchona oblongifolia Cortex)…The Bark sent by them [Master and Wardens] when simply the Term Bark is employed, is the Cinchona lancifolia or Crown Bark, which is considered as the best Bark in the market…they never purchase any Article used in Medicine in powder…every article of the Materia Medica is bought in the Gross, and powdered at their Mill in the Premises under the Inspection of their very confidential Servants.’

A speedy reply (or rebuke?) on 14 March 1811 suggested that the Army didn’t want to know about the three types of bark – but wanted to know how the Society got the best quality of each type.  Furthermore, the Society had said that when ‘Bark’ is used, it referred only to Crown Bark. But, a sample was purchased  ‘at your Hall in which a proportion of 3 in 16 of the small quilled Bark, a sort considered inferior, was found mixed with the best Crown Bark, the whole being sold as an article of the best quality.’

On the 16th of March the Society replied that when any article was wanted, notice is posted so interested parties, druggists, merchants in the City, will want to produce proper samples.  Re the Bark bought at the Hall, ‘they think it proper to observe that the most eminent Druggists in London are not as yet perfectly decided on every identical piece of the Crown Bark, but at all events, the Committee can only purchase the best Article submitted to them’.  Pharmacists had to judge the quality of cinchona bark, as it arrived at London Docks, by colour and taste. The relationship between commercial barks and botanical species was unclear, and there was no assay to measure the active components.

This episode clearly hit at the heart of the Society’s reputation as provider of pure and high quality substances, and the doubts raised must have resonated throughout the Society and its laboratories.

One historian noted: ‘A further problem was that harvesting the bark of cinchona trees often led to their death. As the trees grew wild, regeneration was not sufficient to maintain supplies. By the beginning of the 19th century, as Spain’s American colonies gained independence, there was serious concern in Europe over the quality, quantity and price of exports of bark. Cinchona was taking on an increasingly important role in the occupation and safe administration of tropical colonies in Asia (India, Indonesia) and Africa.’[3]

At the same time as this spat with the Army Medical Board, Samuel Backler, Sotherton’s son, was trading on his links with the Society to market his own preparation of Peruvian Bark.  In a Times advert of 10 January 1811, we find S. Backler, ‘from Apothecaries’ Hall’, marketing a preparation of Peruvian Bark in the form of an oval tablet equal to one teaspoonful of powdered bark.  The advert modestly states that ‘S.B. confidently assures the faculty and the public that, having studied more than eight years in the chemical department at Apothecaries’ Hall, he is enabled to prepare all sorts of medicines agreeable to the plan pursued there…’

This, along with the advert for asthma preparations discussed above, and several others, such as the one below for whooping cough (BCWG, 16 May 1822 – alas my notes don’t say what ‘BCWG’ stands for, and I cannot find it online!), whooping-cough-bcwg-thu-16-may-1822-p1d1suggest that for a while, at least, Samuel, adept at trading on the name of Apothecaries’ Hall,  pursued a successful career marketing medicines from his laboratory in Covent Garden and later from his home in Berners Street.  To modern eyes, his claims of quality and efficacy make interesting reading indeed!

In the next post, I will follow his life and times as a parent, ‘tobacconist’ and ‘bankrupt’; ‘clerk’ in the 1851 Census; and ‘formerly dispensing chemist’ (his death certificate).  The records show that Samuel  ‘withdrew’ from the Society in 1843, and my feeling about him is that he was first, a poor businessman, and second, that he suffered by not having completed his apprenticeship, therefore not able to make claims to be an apothecary after the Apothecaries’ Act of 1815, which regularised and strengthened the role of apothecaries, forerunners to today’s general practitioners.

[1] ‘A cure for the ague: the contribution of Robert Talbor (1642-81)’. T.W. Keeble J R Soc Med 1997; 90:285-290.

[2] For a very interesting discussion of the uses of Peruvian Bark in the battle against malaria (or ‘fever’, or ‘ague’), see M.R.Lee, ‘Plants against Malaria. Part I: Cinchona or the Peruvian Bark’, J R Coll Physicians Edinb 2002: 32: 189-196

[3] A short history of Cinchona (Kew) http://www.kew.org/collections/ecbot/collections/topic/cinchona/a-short-history-of-cinchona/index.html

 

One comment

  1. Hi Barbara,

    As usual your post has gone into amazing depth. It seems Samuel was the not quite apothecary who turned to medicinal compounds as a way of making a living. Perfectly understandable that he used the knowledge gained whilst at Apothecaries Hall, even though by today’s standards, it was on the speculative end of the profession. Very interesting that Peruvian bark contained quinine and that was how it helped malaria, although no-one appeared to quite know why at the time.

    Best wishes,

    Ray

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