Q: While having my cholesterol medication refilled, I remembered something I’ve wondered about for ages. How did Rx become the pharmacy symbol or abbreviation for “prescription”?
Don Scheibel, of Fairview Heights
A: If you are/were a fan of TV’s “The Waltons,” you surely remember the Baldwin sisters cooking up countless batches of the prized moonshine they called “The Recipe.”
Whether it had any medicinal properties is doubtful, but after a few snorts you may have felt better anyway. Much the same may have been true centuries ago when early doctors whipped up various homemade recipes of plant, mineral and, yes, animal substances, hoping to cure whatever disease ailed you that particualar day. But while today’s medicine is far more scientific, we still have at least one major holdover from those ancient times — the Rx that prominently adorns the prescription sheet the doctor hands you as well as drugstore signs.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to Belleville News-Democrat
So, the short answer to your question is that the “R” is the abbreviation for the Late Latin word “recipere,” meaning “to take.” By starting off a prescription with Rx, your doctor is admonishing you to take the drug he/she is giving you at a certain frequency or time of day — as in Rx two aspirin and call me in the morning. Many say the “x” seems to be simply a popular addition to many abbreviations in the medical world, such as dx for diagnosis, sx for signs and symptoms and hx for a patient’s history.
But while many question their hypotheses, some argue that they have discovered a couple of far more colorful histories for what has become a universal symbol in much of the world.
They say Rx dates back not two millennia, but rather 5,000 years to ancient Egypt during a time when the people there prayed to Horus, god of the sun. According to their mythology, Horus as a youngster was attacked by Seth, the demon of evil, who put out the boy’s eye. (No telling if they were playing with an early model of Ralphie Parker’s Red Ryder air rifle.)
In any case, Horus’ mother cried out to Thoth, the god of learning and magic, for help, and he immediately healed the eye, enabling Horus to see again. After that, the eye of Horus remained a sign of the god’s willingness to help the sick and suffering. Now, they claim, the R may have come from “recipe,” but the Rx symbol used to be an eye with an “x” below it instead of the "R," and was known as the “Eye of Horus,” thus making Horus the “father of pharmacy.” They say a few drugstores still use the eyeball/x logo. (If you go to http://egyptphoto.ncf.ca/Egypt%20a%20Perspective13.htm, you can see Egyptologist Bassam Salah pointing out what he says is the first recorded incidence of Rx at Kom Ombo, a tomb partially dedicated to Horus.)
Not to be outdone, Romans also claim authorship, others argue. According to the 1931 book “Devils, Drugs, and Doctors,” “Rx is ... an invocation to Jupiter, a prayer for his aid to make the treatment effective ... sometimes in old medical manuscripts all the R’s occurring in the text were crossed.” In other words, the Rx symbol with its crossed leg at the bottom right looks much like a corruption of the ancient symbol for the chief Roman god Jupiter, as any modern astrology adherent would tell you.
I leave it to you to decide which explanation seems most palatable.
Name that drug: After my recent column on how drug companies devise those seemingly inexplicable monikers for their new potions, Tom Caldwell, of O’Fallon, sent me New Jersey pharmacist Timothy O’Shea’s translation of 15 drug names, which appeared on pharmacytimes.com in September 2015. A few of the best:
The sleeping aid Ambien means “good morning” ( “bien” is “good” in Spanish while A.M. is morning). Lasix, the diuretic, is short for “lasts six hours,” its effective duration. Lopressor lowers blood pressure. The painkiller Vicodin’s component hydrocodone is approximately six (VI in Roman numerals) times as potent as codeine (codin). The blood thinner warfarin honors its developers, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation or WARF. The popular OTC drug Tylenol comes from its chemical name, N-aceTYL-para-aminophENOL. And the anticoagulant Xarelto works by inhibiting Factor Xa in the complicated process that leads to blood clotting.
See, didn’t I tell you the names were logical?
The tire’s dark history: After reading my recent column on the history of rubber tires, Bill Beckemeyer, of Carlyle, immediately sent me his own piece of research that detailed how tires went from white to black.
Yes, if you look at old photos, you’ll see that the first Harley-Davidson motorcycles (as well as early cars) had white tires, because the natural color of rubber is white or off-white, says Beckemeyer, the historian for the Stone Celts chapter of the Harley Owners Group (HOG) in O’Fallon. But tire developers quickly found that by adding carbon black to the rubber, their product became stronger, dissipated heat better and lasted longer. As a side benefit, owners weren’t continually scrubbing the dirt off their tires from the lousy roads back then.
Soon carbon black was in great demand, and a chemical company owned by Edwin Binney and Harold Smith was more than happy to supply the pigment to tire manufactures. Eventually, however, Binney and Smith decided to concentrate on a product they had first marketed in 1903 (the same year the first prototype Harley took to the streets): the Crayola. In 2007, Binney & Smith, now a part of Hallmark Cards, changed its company name to Crayola LLC.
Where would you go to see the southernmost glacier in the United States?
Answer to Saturday’s trivia: The media must have ranked right up there with death and taxes for legendary Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. Although the story may be apocryphal, when he was asked to contribute $10 to a sportswriter’s funeral, he reportedly said, “Here’s a 20. Bury two.” He also said, “It’s not the will to win that matters – everyone has that. It’s the will to prepare to win that matters.” And, of course, “If you want to walk the heavenly streets of gold, you gotta know the password: “Roll, Tide, roll!”