Pill Machine (From the Collection #12)

The Story

Before mass-production began in the nineteenth centuries and even into the beginning of the twentieth century, pharmacists created medicines in-house. For centuries they rolled pills by hand.

This labour-intensive process began with a doctor’s prescription that indicated the weight of every ingredient needed to produce one pill as well as the number of pills required to treat the patient. Based on this information, the pharmacist measured and ground up the required medicinal ingredients using a mortar and pestle. Next, he added a wet or dry binding agent, such as soap, milk powder or glucose syrup, to create a pliable paste. The paste was then formed into a thin cylinder (called a “pipe”) and placed onto a “pill tile” where it was cut into equal pieces. The rough pills were rolled between the pharmacist’s thumb and index finger to achieve a spherical shape. He could also use specialized tools such as “pill finishers” (flat wooden disks spun over the pills) or pill rounders (containers in which pills were shaken) to further refine pill shape.

Pharmacists could coat pills to disguise the flavour of the medicine, making them easier to swallow. Depending on how much the client was willing or able to pay, thin gold or silver leaf, calcium carbonate (to achieve a pearl finish), sugar, or gelatin could be used. Many of these coatings made the pills indigestible. As a result, they would pass through the digestive system whole, without delivering medication.

It was not until the nineteenth century that pill machines, equipped with brass pill cutters (such as the one pictured here) arrived in Britain via mainland Europe. The pill-making process became more efficient as a result of the introduction of this new technology because the machine cut the “pipe” and rolled the pills into rough spheres all at once as the plates were pushed back and forth over the paste. Pill machines were available with a number of different plates that cut the “pipe” into varying sizes, often from one to five grains (or 65 to 325 mg). The pill machine pictured here is equipped with brass and wood plates for making pills of six grains (389 mg) in size.

The Specs

ACCESSION # (Web Link):1980.18.120 a-b
Object Name:Apothecary’s Pill Rolling Machine
Manufacturer (Country):Unknown (Unknown)
Date Made:Circa 1800-1899
MESH Code:Drug Compounding — instrumentation

About “From the Collection”

“From the Collection” was a project originally published in 2010 to the Museum of Health Care’s website by former Curator Paul Robertson, with the goal being to highlight some the Museum’s most unique items that might be missed in our collection. Each artifact is presented as a bite-sized story, related information, and a link to it’s fully detailed entry on our free online digital catalogue!

Posts in the “From the Collection” series were originally created with support from Funded by the Ontario Museums and Technology Fund. The support of the Government of Ontario, through the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, is acknowledged.

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