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"Druggist's Sieve." Patent no. 22094, filed by Eliza E. Scott, 1885

 

Patent no. 22094. Filing year 1885.

"Druggist's Sieve," Eliza E. Scott.

Women inventors in 19th century Canada were few and far between, and those who did register patents focused their efforts mainly on the domestic sphere. Eliza E. Scott's "Druggist's Sieve" represented a significant foray into the male-dominated field of Canada's then-emerging pharmaceutical industry.

Scott's patent consisted of a wooden box containing a cylindrical sieve that was rotated with a handle mounted on the outside of the box. Compounds to be sifted were poured into the cylinder, which was then latched shut, as was the box. Once the substance had been sifted by rotating the cylinder, the bottom of the box holding the sifted material could be slid out and the box and cylinder washed.

Scott was also notable for being more articulate than most patent-holders, who in their applications typically stuck to describing the basic mechanics of their inventions. Scott, on the other hand, provided a historical context for her creation. She wrote, "This invention relates to a very handy, convenient and healthy device for sifting druggists' powder compounds, many of which are deadly poisons, and destructive to those handling them, especially in the operation of cleaning and sifting them. Heretofore the only device used for the purpose has been simply a common open sieve, the dust from which in sifting poisonous compounds arises and penetrates the ears, nostrils and mouth of the operator, as well as pervading the whole room in which the operation is carried on, rendering the air unfit for human beings to breathe."

On the face of it, a sensible invention. However, the lack of information on Scott or her sieve casts doubts on whether the pharmaceutical community saw much merit in it. From what we know about Scott, who invented the sieve when she was around 38, she was almost certainly not a registered druggist, and did not list an occupation in the census records of the day. For several years before and after her invention, however, Scott lived with an older woman named Ellen Lewis, who manufactured various patent medicines, including "Mrs. Lewis' Celebrated Cough Syrup" and "Blood Purifying Bilious Bitters."

If Scott participated in the ventures of Mrs. Lewis (to whom she may have been related) she would have been involved in an alternative medicine movement that enjoyed considerable popularity at the time -- despite the fact that the claims of the hawkers invariably overshot the health benefits of their products.

To be fair, there wasn't much in the way of legitimate choice for the public. Many medicines we now take for granted had not yet been invented; Aspirin, for example, only came on the scene in 1898. Patent medicines were both more readily available and cheaper than conventional medicine, and that many druggists and chemists in Canada at the time were untrained and unqualified, despite mid-century efforts to regulate the industry. Doctors were also relatively scarce: at the time of Confederation, the number of unlicensed medical practitioners in Ontario was at least double that of licensed ones.

It wasn't until the 20th century was well underway that advances in chemistry led to the creation of more reliable medicines, and the medical industry became better organized and controlled. Until then, the likes of "snake-oil salesmen" had a strong hold on the popular imagination.

References

Thanks to Anne McKeage, history of health and medicine librarian at the Health Sciences Library, McMaster University, and Hamilton historian Janet Bryers for their assistance on this profile.

Bernier, Jacques. Disease, Medicine and Society in Canada: A Historical Overview. Ottawa: Canadian Historical Association, 2003.

Canadian Pharmaceutical Association. A Brief History of Pharmacy in Canada. Toronto: Canadian Pharmaceutical Association, 1969.

Godfrey, Charles M. Medicine for Ontario: A History. Belleville, Ont.: Mika Publishing Company, 1979.

Hutchinson's Hamilton Directory of 1862-63. Hamilton [Ont.]: J. Eastwood, 1862.

Hamilton Census Returns for 1871 and 1881.

Norrie, Kenneth, and Douglas Owram. A History of the Canadian Economy. Toronto: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Canada, 1991.