Our Featured Object for February is this shagreen squill bottle, which belonged to Samuel Johnson himself.
It is covered in a type of green leather made from shark skin, known as shagreen. The case has a hinged lid which opens to reveal the bottle with its neat glass stopper.
For many years it was thought to be a vinaigrette filled with smelling salts (ammonium carbonate) which were used commonly in the eighteenth-century to revive people.
However, since there is no evidence that Johnson used smelling salts and the bottle is very small, it is now considered more likely that the object is in fact a squill bottle used to carry vinegar of squill (acetum scillae). Johnson may have carried this bottle around with him in his later life to help relieve his ongoing heart condition.
Squill (Urginea maritima) is a plant, the bulb of which has been used since ancient Egyptian times to treat heart conditions. It contains cardiac glycosides, compounds of which slow the pace and increase the efficiency of each beat of the heart. It is also a diuretic which brings relief from the retention of liquid, a common symptom of the condition dropsy.
Johnson administered this medicine himself, taken in small doses of between 0.9ml and 3.5mls, in aromatic water. The liquid is clear and yellowish in colour. It has a bitter acid taste and smells of vinegar. A slight brown-yellow residue can still be seen inside the bottle that may be remains of Johnson’s squill vinegar.
In June 1783, Johnson suffered a stroke which led to a short period of aphasia (impaired speech, usually as the result of brain damage). During this time he was unable to speak or write properly, however, his mind remained clear and he was not paralysed. Helped by the squill, Johnson made a good recovery, writing ‘the squills have ever sufferage, and in squills we rest for the present.’
Towards the end of his life, the squill appeared to be less effective in treating Johnson’s condition. At this point he may have been prescribed foxglove leaf (digitalis purpura). Digitalis was still very much experimental at that time, with no recognised standard for dosage or prescription levels and it is possible that Johnson may have died of an overdose of this drug.
The records kept in Heberden’s Index by Johnson’s doctor, the famous William Heberden (1710 – 1801), make reference to ‘Doctor Sam Johnson’ and another patient to whom ‘an infusion of digitalis leaf, 2 ounces of leaf to 8 ounces of water […] every hour for 9 hours’ was given.’ The record sadly concludes ‘He died suddenly in the evening.’ Samuel Johnson died on 13th December 1784 and is buried in Westminster Abbey.
Johnson’s death stimulated further research into the question of the dosage of digitalis in the treatment of heart failure. Doctor William Withering a Shropshire man and the son of a pharmacist, contributed significantly to the understanding of digitalis’ use in treating heart disease. In 1785 he published “An account of the foxglove and some of its medical uses; with practical remarks on the dropsy, and some other diseases” (Birmingham: Swinney, 1785)
Contributor: Annemarie Powell is a long-standing museum volunteer. Prior to that she was an English teacher and first got to know the Birthplace Museum when bringing her students here on school visits.