For a long time, I have been intrigued by a photograph of an old medicine bottle given to me in the early 1990s by
Sylvian Ofiara shortly after I retired from medical practice (see Figure 1 at right). Ofiara had been a staff photographer
for our local newspaper, an Associate Professor of Photography at the Manchester Community College, and a frequent
contributor of photographs to books and other publications.1-3 Recently I asked him what if anything he
remembered about this bottle. During the 1920s or 1930s, he recalled, it had been purchased by one of his parents from a
local drug store in Manchester, Connecticut, and although long since emptied of the castor oil it had once contained, was
for some reason never discarded. More than fifty years after the bottle had been acquired, he took this picture.
The lighting and background used in the photograph captures the imperfections within the glass of the bottle itself as well as reveals the dried stains from its former contents and the dust and particles adherent to its surface -- further attesting to the age of the bottle. The words printed on the bottle's label, still legible, are also of interest, documenting the name and address of the pharmacy that sold the medicine - the Magnell Drug Company - what the bottle once contained - castor oil - and the dosage that had been recommended. I decided to do some further sleuthing.
Two articles in the Hartford Courant about the pharmacy, the first during World War I4 and the second during the 1920s5, revealed the following. Charles J. Magnell received his early experience in pharmacy in Hartford, Connecticut, where he passed the required state licensing examination before the board of pharmacy. In 1906, he moved to California, also passed this state's licensing examination in pharmacy, and for several years managed a large drug store in Los Angeles. When his father became sick, he returned to Connecticut and in 1916 opened the Magnell Drug Company at 1095 Main Street in Manchester. An excerpt from the newspaper article describing the store noted that the "compounding of prescriptions is specialized in, only the purest of drugs and chemicals being used. The usual full line of drug sundries is to be had."
Castor oil was once a favorite and much used purgative and laxative, having been described as far back as ancient Egyptian times. Obtained from the seeds of the castor bean plant, ricinus communis, it is still available although for the most part supplanted now by other laxatives. For those of a certain age, however, I am sure that the sight of a bottle of castor oil, particularly with a spoon nearby as in this photograph, will bring to mind the agonies of receiving this medicine as a youngster "for your own good" or "to keep your systems clear." Indeed, I am reminded of a well-known Normal Rockwell cover for the Saturday Evening Post entitled "Take Your Medicine" (May 30, 1936) that shows a young boy, with his eyes partly closed and his mouth wide open, being given a spoonful of medicine by a determined looking woman who is probably his mother and who in one hand is holding the spoon and in the other a bottle of medicine, the latter in all likelihood containing either castor oil or cod liver oil, both popular remedies of the time.
So what do I see or imagine when I look at this photograph (Fig. 1)? I see the skill of an accomplished photographic artist in stirring our memories with something as ordinary as an old medicine bottle. I see an early to mid 20th century drugstore that recalls a bit of local history in the New England community in which I lived for many years. And I obtain a fleeting glimpse of medical treatment as practiced in a bygone era.
I share this photograph in the hope that others will appreciate it as I have.
My thanks to Sylvian Ofiara for allowing me to reproduce his photograph of an old medicine bottle, and to David Smith, Curator of the Manchester Historical Society of Manchester, Connecticut, for providing information about the Magnell Drug Company.
Martin Duke, MD
Former Director of Medical Education and Chief of Cardiology
Manchester Memorial Hospital
1. Buckley WE: A New England Pattern: The History of Manchester, Connecticut. Chester, Connecticut: Pequot Press;
2. Flynn M: From Your Neighbor's Kitchen: As Published in the Manchester Evening Herald. Manchester, Connecticut; c.1970.
3. Abdellah FG, Strachan EJ: Progressive patient care. Am. J Nurs 1959; 59(5):649-55.
4. Hartford Courant, November 5, 1916.
5. Hartford Courant, September 30, 1923.
Ed. Note: Sylvian "Sinch" Ofiara (1926-2012) was born and raised in Manchester, CT. As a Manchester Evening Herald photographer, he took pictures throughout the town, as well as at baseball games and political events. He also taught photography at Manchester Community College for 20 years.