Aq. Dist.

Aq. Dist. Fol. Laur. Te Virid

In Brief

In 1904 James Joyce walked into the pharmacy on Lincoln Place and quizzed the proprietor,  Frederick William Sweny, about his business. This minor research foray no doubt gave him some material for Bloom's reverie about the stuff on the shelves: "Aq. Dist. Fol. Laur. Te Virid. Smell almost cure you like the dentist's doorbell. Doctor Whack. He ought to physic himself a bit. Electuary or emulsion. The first fellow that picked an herb to cure himself had a bit of pluck. Simples. Want to be careful. Enough stuff here to chloroform you. Test: turns blue litmus paper red. Chloroform. Overdose of laudanum. Sleeping draughts. Lovephiltres. Paragoric poppysyrup bad for cough. Clogs the pores or the phlegm. Poisons the only cures. Remedy where you least expect it. Clever of nature." Some of the details here are neutral enough, but a thread of Odyssean peril runs through the paragraph.

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At the dawn of the 20th century pharmacology still relied heavily on traditional herbal remedies, a fact which makes Bloom think of the daring of the prehistoric humans who first experimented with consuming potent leaves, berries, barks, and roots. Pharmacies were stocked with numerous bottles, boxes, and wooden drawers holding such ingredients. They were the "Simples" which pharmacists compounded to make their various preparations. (The OED notes that in medicine the term means "Consisting or composed of one substance, ingredient, or element...esp. natural or organic.") Many such herbal ingredients in pharmacists' shops were quite unremarkable. The trade abbreviations that sound so daunting in Latin (like the phrases that Bloom has just heard used in the church) actually refer to very ordinary household substances. "Aq. Dist." or Aqua distillata is Latin for distilled water. "Fol. Laur." or folia laurea are bay leaves, picked from the laurel tree. "Te Virid" is the (or te) viridis, green tea.

Other ingredients, however, were more powerfully productive of precise chemical effects in the body. "Chloroform" (trichloromethane) was first synthesized in the 1830s, and by 1850 it was being put to medical use as an anaesthetic. (Queen Victoria used it in childbirth, popularizing that practice.) It is not clear whether chloroform is being marketed in Sweny's shop; Bloom thinks only that there is "Enough stuff here to chloroform you." But "laudanum" was a staple of all Victorian pharmacies. This tincture of powdered opium mixed with alcohol had been used since the 17th century as a painkiller and by the late 19th century made up such a large part of pharmacy sales (unregulated and often self-prescribed) that addiction had become a widespread problem. Well more than half of addicts were women, owing to laudanum's great effectiveness in treating menstrual cramps. Bloom thinks of the danger of "Overdose," and a moment later he reflects, "Paragoric poppysyrup bad for cough." Paregoric is another, less potent tincture of powdered opium (hence "poppysyrup") that had been used since the early 18th century to treat cough, pain, and diarrhea, particularly in children.

Through all of this consideration of pharmaceutical ingredients Bloom loosely threads his layman's inexact impressions of the business. He has evidently decided from his own experience of raising a child that paregoric is not an effective cough remedy. He thinks of "Sleeping draughts"—whether or not he is still thinking of opium products here is unclear, but laudanum was sometimes recommended as a soporific for children—and also of "Lovephiltres." The OED defines "philtre" as "A potion or drug (rarely, a charm of other kind) supposed to be capable of exciting sexual love, esp. towards a particular person." Bloom recalls from high school chemistry class that acid "turns blue litmus paper red," though this information is irrelevant to chloroform, which has a neutral pH. And he knows that pharmaceutical compounds can take the form of "Electuary or emulsion," the former mixing powdered agents with some sweet ingredient like honey to improve the taste, the latter suspending minute droplets of a non-soluble liquid agent in water.

In this paragraph Bloom also meditates on the ingestion of potent chemicals in a way that suits the Lotus Eaters chapter's larger preoccupation with escaping reality. He thinks about drugs (unspecified, but they would clearly include laudanum) that people take to alter their mental states: "Drugs age you after mental excitement. Lethargy then. Why? Reaction. A lifetime in a night. Gradually changes your character." His thoughtful prudence here marks him as an Odysseus figure who can resist the lure of the lotus.

But even his thoughts about properly therapeutic drugs are tinged with an awareness of danger. Bloom's reflections on how perilous it is to sample wild plants and to "Overdose" on medicines lead him to an often-repeated maxim about drugs and poisons: "Poisons the only cures. Remedy where you least expect it. Clever of nature." (Laudanum labels at this time often announced that the contents were "Poison," and reinforced the warning with a skull and crossbones.) Throughout this paragraph, the foray into Sweny's pharmacy acquires the character of Homer's stories about men venturing into unknown and highly dangerous places.

JH 2022
Adam Hart's recreation of the shelves of a 19th century pharmacy. Source:
Wooden drawers for herbal simples made for a Victorian pharmacy ca. 1870. Source:
Laudanum and paregoric for sale in a 19th century Sears catalogue. Source:
American laudanum bottle from the early 1900s marked with the word "Poison" and a skull and crossbones. Source: