The practice of homoeopathy was founded in the early 1800s. It was a new kind of medicine based on the system that 'like cures like'. The patient was given extremely small quantities of drugs that were capable of producing the same symptoms as the disease being treated. It reached its height of popularity in the late part of the 19th century before its popularity faded, but nevertheless is still practised by some today.
Homoeopathic medicine chests generally follow a standard arrangement although they vary in size depending on how many bottles of medicine they contain. They are made of polished wood with brass fittings and a lining of black leather or imitation leather. There is a hinged lid and underneath that a tray with a perforated rack holding rows of tiny bottles. Behind the bottle tray is a compartment for an instruction book and underneath it there are one or two drawers holding larger bottles, usually containing preparations for external application. In the leather lining of the lid there are slots for housing a glass rod and a small spatula for extracting drops of medicines or pilules from the bottles.
The homoeopathic chest donated to the Powerhouse Museum in 2002 is of this standard design, but it contains none of its original contents. Instead there are nine bottles of homoeopathic preparations lying in the upper compartment.
The chest belonged to a family in Ingleburn on the south-western outskirts of Sydney. The donor, now 75 years old, remembers his mother administering the medicines when he was a child. In those days a visit to the doctor meant a day's outing to Campbelltown, so for most illnesses "Mum was the doctor of the house". The medicine box was kept in a safe place in her bedroom - there was, for example, aconite for a headache or memory problems, belladonna for stuffiness from asthma or an allergy, rhubarb powder for constipation and tummy problems. A supplier would visit once or twice a year so that mother could stock up.
The chest and its contents are a tangible relic of a time when people were more self reliant than perhaps they are now - a time when, for most people, whether geographically isolated or not, a visit to the doctor was an expensive and therefore rare event.
Young, Anne Mortimer, Antique medicine chests: or glister, blister and purge, Vernier Press, London & Brighton, 1994.
Conversations between Mr Arthur Hounslow and Megan Hicks, curator of health and medicine, May 2002 [transcription on file].