I don’t think I’ll ever change the law and save lives.
Working for years in surgery, I never looked up to see the big picture.
But one of my predecessors in Torquay influenced parliament and improved the law.
Dr. Toogood sounds like a character from the Mister Men books, like Dr. Makewell from Mister Bump. In fact, he was a doctor in Torquay.
In 1849 he wrote to Dr. Charles Hastings, President of the Council of the Provincial and Surgical Association, an organization that would later be renamed the BMA.
His letter was entitled “On the Crime of Secret Poisoning,” which would have been a good headline for another famous Torquay, Agatha Christie.
Off the M5 at Taunton, a woman named Sarah Freeman was tried and hanged for murder. Not content with one murder, she poisoned her husband, mother, child, and brother.
Bridgwater City Council sent a letter to Sir Robert Peel suggesting that the sale of poisons be restricted.
Dr. Toogood was more dramatic in his phraseology, saying that several members of the family were “swept off the face of the earth.”
He pointed out that arsenic was available in every pharmacy and many rural stores, but became the most common poison used in murder.
It had no taste, no color, no smell, so it could easily be added to food without the suspicion of a victim.
“Secret poisoning” often went undetected, raising the question of how anyone knew it was a problem.
He proposed “to suppress the indiscriminate sale of poisons to the illiterate, especially arsenic.” He must have assumed that anyone who could read and write could not be a murderer.
He suggested that anyone selling arsenic should be licensed and keep a ledger. Buyers buying arsenic also had to bring a witness, and both had to sign for him.
He was impressed by Austria, where no one was allowed to sell drugs of any kind without a medical education and a satisfactory license, and only an apothecary could issue a doctor’s or surgeon’s prescription.
All poisons had to be locked up, and medicines could only be prepared by the head of the institution. Just like today there was a list of prescription drugs.
And there pharmacists were controlled more strictly. According to Dr. Toogood, they could not “prescribe even the simplest medicines and perform the most minor surgeries; moreover, he cannot sell a dose of medicine without the written permission of a physician or surgeon recognized by the university of his country.”
It also seems that the qualifications of doctors and surgeons were more tightly controlled than in the UK.
In 1856, there were 10,220 people in the medical directory, but only four percent of them had a medical degree. And 94 percent of British doctors and surgeons were not recognized by any university. Of course, there were no women.
The Austrian regulations, as Dr Toogood pointed out, protect “from charlatans, swindlers, patent medicines.”
In England, where there was a free market, “discreet women are insulted when obscene advertising leaflets are hung on the streets for them.”
I don’t know if my Torquay colleague’s letter helped, but two years later, in 1851, the Arsenic Act was passed. This prohibited the sale of arsenic to anyone the apothecary did not know. There was a £20 fine.
This did not go smoothly as the House of Lords unsuccessfully attempted to amend the law to prohibit any woman from purchasing arsenic.
Were they afraid that their wives might try to poison them?
So whenever you get a doctor’s prescription that only an apothecary can write, you can thank the Torquay doctor from 1849, even though he didn’t anticipate ordering prescriptions online from the app.