The Compounding Process 100 Years Ago

(Making Aromatic Rhubarb Syrup)

Syrup is a thick sweet liquid that is made by dissolving sugar into boiling water. Although syrups are usually thought of as a food items they are also important in medicinal preparations.   Syrups have been a mainstay in pharmaceuticals for centuries and today items such as “cough syrup” are commonly prescribed.

Two hundred years ago some common varieties of syrups included Syrupus Allii (Syrup of Garlic), Syrupus Auranth Corticis (Syrup of Orange Peel), Syrupus Zingiberis (Syrup of Ginger), Syrupus Rhei Aromaticus (Aromatic Syrup of Rhubarb), Syrupus Simplex (Simple Syrup) and many others. Each of these syrups has a clear link to a particular medicinal herb. The sweet syrup is used as a pleasant tasting vehicle to deliver the herbal medication to the patient.

During Pharmacy School, Lee Goodson took a class on medicinal herbs. As a final project for the class he made a preparation of four syrups contained in the 1820 Pharmacopoeia of the United States. The Pharmacopoeia was (and is) the official collection of the United State’s standards and practices for drug preparation.   The syrups for the project were made using, to the best of his understanding, 19th tools and techniques. It should be noted that the actual product (shown in a Mason jar) appears much darker than the pale yellow liquid seen in the decorative labeled bottle. This is because the duration of the project was a number of months and the color of the final product (very dark brown) was not determined until the very end, weeks after the original photos were made.

Syrup of Aromatic Rhubarb Syrup was used as a digestive aid. According to 1909 National Standard Dispensatory, in small quantities aromatic rhubarb syrup would improve appetite, digestion and intestinal tone due to its astringent qualities. In larger doses it could be used as a cathartic and prolonged usage could lead to constipation.


  • Rhei contuse drachmas quinque.
  • Caryophyllorum;
  • Cinnamomi, utriusque unciam dimidiam.
  • Myristicae nucleos duos.
  • Aquae octantem unum.

Digee et vaporet, donec liquor ad octantem dimidium sit redactus; cola, et libram sacchari unam et octantem dimidium alcoholis dilute adde. Dein coque paulisper, ut fiat syrupus.


  • Rhubarb bruised, five drachms.
  • Cloves.
  • Cinnamon, each half an ounce.
  • Nutmeg, two in number.
  • Water, one pint.

Digest and evaporate till the liquor is reduced to half a pint; strain, and add one pound of sugar, and half a pint of diluted alcohol; then boil a little to form a syrup.