Nineteenth Century Medicines

Prior to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938, the United States had few laws governing medicines, drug development, and drug distribution. In the late 1800s, patent medicines reigned supreme. Medicine show "professors" traveled around North America, hawking their miraculous, exotic "cures" from soapboxes or platforms in carnival tents. These medicine men brought North America everything from Foley's Honey and Tar (for coughs and colds) to Hot Springs Liver Buttons (which promised to keep "your liver all right and your bowels regular"). The audience listened and purchased these cures because the products promised "health in a bottle" during a time of limited access to good medical care.

"Feeling weak?" the salesmen would cry. "Have digestive problems? Suffer from blood disorders or nervous conditions? No need for a doctor! Just try Dr. Williams' Pink Pills for Pale People. This little pill will cure what ails you, and may even save your life! Only fifty cents a box, six boxes for $2.50."

Some Early Patent Medicines and Their Claims

Lydia Pinkham'sVegetable Compound, a brew of herbs and alcohol, claimed to treat menstrual cramps and cure other women's ills.

• Dr. William's Pink Pills for Pale People was advertised to be a "safe and effective tonic for the blood and nerves." Its label claimed that the pills treated anemic conditions, nervous disorders, and conditions caused by thin blood.

• Hamlin's Wizard Oil Company's cure-all,The Great Medical Wonder, promised to cure headaches within five minutes, earaches in ten, and nerve disorders in fifteen. Its advertisements read, "'There is no Sore it will Not Heal, No Pain it will not subdue."

A popular patent medicine of the 1890s, Dr. Williams' pink-pill cure was only one of many patent medicines sold during the late nineteenth century. According to Dr. Tina Brewster Wray, the Curator of Collections at the White River Valley Museum in Auburn, Washington, medicine merchants marketed over 100,000 brands of patent medicines between 1860 and 1900. But these so-called cures were nothing new.

Patent medicines arrived in the North America in the late 1700s as medicines that had been produced under grants from the English king. Under these grants, which were called "patents," the king gave his official permission for the manufacturer to develop the medicine, and he promised to provide royal financial backing. Hence the name, "patent medicine." Though usually referred to as patent medicines, the actual medicines (their recipe and ingredient list) weren't patented in North America as we think of patents today; only the medicine's name and packaging were registered with the government as a trademark to protect the remedy's owner and manufacturer. The ingredient list and recipe remained secret. And that was a problem.

Most patent medicine ingredients weren't medicines at all. Though they claimed to cure everything from diaper rash to diabetes, they were often nothing more than alcohol, flavorings, herbs, or narcotics mixed together and put in a colorful bottle or box with an impressive-looking label.

Some labels and advertisements made ridiculous claims, like those made by Warner's Safe Liver and Kidney Cure, which claimed that Warner's medicine could treat all diseases of the lower half of the body. Another patent medicine, Wintersmith's Chill Tonic, claimed to

Eben Byers


In the 1800s, medicines' advertisements did not have to prove their claims.

Radithor contained a radioactive ingredient that ate away teeth and bones-and eventually, could prove to be fatal.

cure malaria—a remarkable claim for the early 1890s, considering that the World Health Organization still attributes more than one million deaths annually to malaria today.

Most patent medicines claimed to work miracles, but ultimately did nothing to heal people, and in some cases caused actual harm, as was the case with Pittsburgh millionaire and industrialist Eben Byers. In 1928, Mr. Byers injured himself at a post-game party following the annual Yale-Harvard football game. On the advice of his physician, Byers drank three half-ounce bottles per day of a patent medicine called Radithor to ease his pain and overcome his injury. He continued this treatment for two years, but stopped abruptly when his teeth started falling out. Though the manufacturer claimed that Radithor was "harmless in every respect," the concoction contained radium, a radioactive element, that not only caused Byers' loss of teeth but also ate away the bones of his jaw and skull. It caused his death in 1931.

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, one of the worst results of the ill effects of patent medicine use in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was the number of healthy babies who became addicted to morphine, heroine, opium, or alcohol. How did babies develop these addictions? Well, imagine being a mother or father with an infant who won't stop crying. The baby shrieks night and day. You never get to sleep. You can't rest. You're exhausted and your child is miserable. As a parent, if you could find a cure for your baby's misery, would you buy it? Of course you would, just as thousands did at the turn of the twentieth century.

The problem was not with the parents but with the cure. Most "soothers" or "soothing syrups," as the patent medicines sold to calm crying children were called,

Continue reading here: Medicines Hall of Shame

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