Dark Secrets of Medicine Shows

Aug. 23, 2013

By Medical Discovery Shows

It’s hard to believe that people used to drink snake oil as a “universal remedy,” or rely on a patent medicine called Mugwumps to prevent sexually transmitted diseases.

Yet, from colonial times to the 1900s, people would unquestionably turn to such “cures.” Patent medicines were sold directly to a patient from the manufacturer without a prescription through mail order, in shops, and in traveling medicine shows. They were trademarked (which is not the same as today’s patenting) by the seller yet untested and unregulated, and as such, rarely worked as advertised. Eventually, people even used the term snake oil salesman as a synonym for a fraudster.

Among the early patent medicines to arrive in America were Daffy’s Elixir Salutis for “colic and griping,” Dr. Bateman’s Pectoral Drops and John Hooper’s Female Pills. These and many other remedies were available for just about any ailment and often made outlandish claims of their effectiveness. An interesting study revisited these patent medicines to discover just what they contained and if they could have lived up to the hype.

At a meeting of the American Chemical Society, the research team headed by Dr. Mark Benvenuto presented their examination of patent medicines from the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. They tested 50 of the hundreds of such medicines in the museum’s Health Aids collection.

Patent medicines were produced long before the advent of the Food and Drug Administration’s regulations and testing standards. Many patent medicines were based on vegetable extracts along with abundant amounts of alcohol. Others contained dangerous substances such as opium, cocaine, heroin, mercury, silver, arsenic, or even the radioactive element thorium. Sadly, some of these potent concoctions were used to treat babies for colic or fussiness, sometimes with tragic results. 

But some were found to contain some substances that could actually be healthy. For example, Dr. F.G. Johnson’s French Female pills contained iron, calcium, and zinc, all of which are common supplements taken by people today. However, these pills also contained potentially toxic lead.

The patent medicine industry flourished during the Industrial Revolution due to the progress of manufacturing, advertisements in newspapers and magazines, and a general distrust of conventional medical care at the time. That started to change when journalist Samuel Hopkins Adams wrote a series of articles for Collier’s Weekly in 1905 entitled “The Great American Fraud,” exposing the industry’s fraudulent and deceitful practices and unsafe manufacturing processes. In 1906, with the strong support of then President Teddy Roosevelt, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act. Drug laws have continued to evolve and in 2002, over-the-counter medications were required to print a “Drug Facts” label. 

While traveling medicine shows have disappeared, advertisements for herbal supplements with improbable claims for rapid weight loss and sexual enhancement litter magazines and TVs. Just as they do now, scientists 100 years in the future will probably wonder what we were thinking!

For a link to this story, click here.

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