Tuesday, April 8, 2014

I occasionally look for PermaRec-ish items on eBay and Etsy — old passports, old ledgers, old scrapbooks, that kind of thing. A week or so ago, for reasons I can't fully explain, I found myself thinking, "Hmmm, I wonder if anyone's selling old prescriptions?"

As you can see above, someone certainly was. In fact, as I soon discovered, there are a fair number of people on the internet selling old scripts. The two shown above are from a batch of 25 — all from 1959, mostly from the Kentucky/Tennessee region — that I purchased on Etsy for $3. (If that sounds like a good deal, you can get in on it, because the seller apparently has plenty more.)

Like any old documents, the prescriptions are evocative and feel like they have stories to tell. They've also raised all sorts of issues in my mind. For example:

1. PermaRec has often entailed some ethical concerns about violating people's privacy. I've usually been able to rationalize away those concerns, either because the people involved were likely deceased or because I convinced myself that the pursuit of an artifact's underlying story was worth the risk. But prescriptions feel different — they'd fall under doctor/patient confidentiality, no? And some of the people for whom these prescriptions were written may still be alive. So as you can see, I've blurred out the patients' surnames, which seems like the right approach to take, especially for a prescription like this one:

2. Somewhat related to the above: How did these scripts end up for sale on the internet to begin with? Wouldn't the pharmacy have disposed of them? Or did pharmacies keep paper prescriptions for their recordkeeping in the days before electronic records? The two holes on the left side of each script may indicate that they were all kept in a two-ring binder.

Still, even if the pharmacy kept them around for a bit, it seems surprising (at least to me) that they weren't eventually discarded. So I asked the Etsy seller how she obtained them. Here's how she responded:

The prescriptions came from a Hopkinsville, Kentucky pharmacy. I acquired them some time ago and sadly I don't remember where. However, I buy my inventory from auctions, estate sales, and antique shows, so it was from one of those. ... When I bought them they were in a vintage black pharmacy box with the date and record range on the cover.

I had hoped to pick her brain a bit more in a phone interview, but she declined my request. A pity.

3. Prescriptions are notorious for being rendered illegibly. But the batch I bought ran the gamut from schoolmarm-perfect penmanship to a few that looked like they were written by a caveman with crayon. The worst of the batch was this next one — even with the surname rewritten somewhat more legibly (presumably by someone at the pharmacy), I don't see any need to blur this one out:

4. Leaving aside the legibility factor, prescriptions often feature their own little alphabet of symbols, like the squiggle — which I believe is the symbol for ounces, right? — that appears twice on this one:

(Update: Longtime PermaRec supporter Kirsten Hively has pointed me toward a page that helps decipher old prescription symbology. Thanks, Kirsten!)

5. I was struck by how these 1959 scripts don't have any provision for renewals or generics.

And so on. I'm sure there are some doctors or other medically inclined folks among the the PermaRec readership, so please fill us in on some of the issues I've raised here by posting some info in the comments.

Meanwhile, now that I have the prescriptions, I don't really know what to do with them. Any suggestions?

1 comment:

  1. These prescriptions were nicely scanned though, despite the illegible handwriting. And also, I believe generics weren't as popular back then or as visible as the top labels. Maybe you could frame them up and sell them as decor pieces in a clinic?

    Curtis @ Spectrum Information