Prince Albert’s Medicine Chest

The contents of a travelling medicine chest could be far better travelled than their owner. The ivory boxes in Prince Albert’s chest contain pills made of Asian opium and South American ipecacuanha, prescribed by the royal physician to manage the Prince Consort’s variety of stomach complaints. A note written in pencil on the base of one of the pill boxes shows it was last refilled in October 1861, a month before his death.

Albert would have been treated with these opiates during the era in which Britain’s aggressive opium trade led to war with China. The chest’s contents reflect medicine as a commodity of an increasingly acquisitive global empire. Chirata, a Himalayan herb used in a tincture in this chest, was almost driven to extinction by demands for its curative properties. All the exotic ingredients of empire could do little to prevent his death, though, at the age of just 42.

The medicine chest is now looked after at the Thackray Museum of Medicine.