What Medicines Were Used in the 1800s?

Medically Reviewed on 5/4/2022
What Medicines Were Used in the 1800s
Medicine has changed significantly over the centuries. Here is a look back at common medicines used in the 1800s and remedies that are still used today

Medicine has changed significantly over the centuries. Remedies used in the 19th century included both quack potions to legitimate treatments, and some helped enlighten the field of science down to this day.

Common medicines used in 1800s include:

  • Painkillers such as opium, morphine, phenacetin, and acetanilide
  • Antipyretics (medications for fever) such as willow bark and meadowsweet
  • Cathartics from various plants to accelerate defecation and as a cleanser of the lower gastrointestinal tract
  • Opium to combat diarrhea and cough
  • Cocaine to relieve toothaches or oral pains
  • Camphor to soothe itchy skin
  • Arsenic and mercury to treat venereal diseases, primarily syphilis
  • Disinfectants such as carbolic, chlorine, lime, charcoal, and sulfur
  • Alternative therapies such as massage, caustics, blistering, warm baths, wraps, and gargles

Dosage methods included powders, pills, tablets, gelatin capsules, pastilles, lozenges, mixtures, tinctures, and emulsions. Ointments, lotions and plasters were applied externally, whereas enemas, suppositories, pessaries, and inhalations were intended to be taken via a body orifice.

What medical theory was followed in the 1800s?

Many 19th century medicines and practices were based on a theory developed by the Roman physician Galen. 

According to this theory, the human body is made up of four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. The relative amounts and predominance of each humor in the body determine health, disease, and temperament in each individual:

  • Blood: Sanguine temperament
  • Phlegm: Phlegmatic temperament
  • Yellow bile: Choleric or bilious temperament
  • Black bile: Melancholic temperament

What medical discoveries were made in the 1800s?

Many medical devices can trace their origins to the 1800s, including:

  • Aspirin
  • Rene Laennec's Stethoscope
  • Ophthalmoscope
  • Quinine for malaria treatment
  • Use of nitric oxide as an anesthetic
  • Antiseptic principle of surgery
  • First vaccine for cholera
  • Use of X-rays to find bullets in the body
  • First smallpox vaccine
  • Discovery of germ theory (pasteurization and sterilization process)
  • Description of leukemia as a blood disorder
  • Akouphone, the world's first electric hearing aid
  • Discovery of the fact that the malaria parasite was transmitted by mosquitoes
  • First successful human blood transfusion
  • First open-heart surgery performed 


What percentage of the human body is water? See Answer

What older remedies are still used today?

  • Penicillin: This revolutionary medicine originally discovered from the Penicillium mold that naturally produces penicillin. The drug grew in popularity at the end of the Second World War.
  • Sulfa or sulfonamides: This was the first compound shown to effectively treat infections that were introduced in 1935 by Gerhard Domagk.
  • Aspirin: Available since 1899, this was referred to as a “wonder drug” for its ability to be used for inflammation, pain relief, and as a blood thinning agent in blood clotting disorders such as heart attacks or blood clots in legs.
  • Insulin: Initially identified in 1869 and first used in humans in 1920 to treat diabetes, this medicine has greatly improved the quality of life for patients with diabetes by slowing the progression of the disease on blood vessels and other organs.
  • Morphine: It was first marketed in 1827 to control pain and is derived from opium. It is known for its powerful analgesic effects.
  • Digitalis or Digoxin: Derived from the foxglove plant, it has been used to treat heart failure, heart rhythm problems, and pulmonary hypertension.
  • Nitroglycerin: First used in 1867 to treat angina, this drug is very effective in relaxing veins and sometimes arteries to relieve chest pain.
  • Leeches: Since the early days of the Egyptians, this therapy has been used for more than 3,000 years to treat many nervous system abnormalities, enhance circulation, and promote wound healing.
Medically Reviewed on 5/4/2022
Image Source: iStock Image

Katherine Kam. A Look Back at Old-Time Medicines. WebMD: https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/features/look-back-old-time-medicines

Paige Gibbons. Changes in Medicine During the 19th Century. American Battlefield: https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/changes-medicine-during-19th-century