Dangerous “Cures”of the Past

I wrote this article which was first published on the recently closed site, Candid Slice.

“Need some old-timey remedies for headaches, stomach aches, liver pain, cold and cough, muscle aches, or even a drinking husband?” ” How about an electric fez that regrows your hair? ” “We have the miracle cure for what ails you!”

These are some promises given by salesmen of patent medicines and treatments from our country’s past. There have always been desperate, trusting people searching for relief from pain or a remedy for a disease affecting their loved ones. The charlatan doctors of the olden days knew how to reel them in with their promises of life saving cure-alls.

For those in pain, “patented” tinctures or elixirs not only masked the pain and symptoms of a disease with their alcohol content, they could actually cause addiction. The effective laudanum definitely could relieve headaches and coughs–but contained tincture of opium, which consisted of the alkaloids for morphine and codeine, both highly addictive. They could even be bought without a prescription. When the bottle was empty, the drug wore off; the pain came back. The cure was an illusion.

A heart wrenching part of this quackery occurred from the 1800s to early 1900’s. Some of these patent medicines were responsible for the deaths of untold numbers of babies and young children.

“Mother’s Friend,” (not the same as the modern product by the same name.) “Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup,” and “Godfrey’s Cordial” were among the common, calming mixtures for colicky, teething, or crying babies. Unknown to the parents, these drugs had Morphine, tincture of opium, or alcohol. One of the side effects of opium, and therefore morphine, is decreased appetite and drowsiness. These babies literally and horrifically starved to death from malnutrition. They didn’t want to eat!

There was even a formula proclaimed to be better for babies than mothers’ milk. Some mothers couldn’t breastfeed and used a wet nurse until formulas came out. When babies developed scurvy, rickets or became sick, the formula was revealed to be lacking in Vitamins C and D and were carriers of bacteria. Parents sometimes lost several babies to these harbingers of death.

One patent drug was Capudine, created by one of Raleigh’s own patent industry, owned by Thomas Hicks. One of Capudine’s components, antipyrin, could produce seizures. But of course Hicks denied it until he was exposed in the 1912 Journal of the American Medical Association.

Patent nostrums, elixirs, and tonics could contain toxic chemicals or totally ineffective ingredients. In 1912 “Doan’s Backache Kidney Pills” (now sold under a true patent and with different ingredients) was found to contain oil of juniper, hemlock pitch, potassium nitrate, powdered fenugreek, wheat flour, and maize starch. Sounded pretty exotic up to the wheat flour.

One favored remedy, among many using small amounts of cocaine for medicinal purposes was Coca-Cola from 1885-1891. The cocaine was reduced to nothing, taken off the “patent medicine” list, and sold as a refreshing drink. Other drugs converted to drinks were: 7Up, Pepsi Cola, Hires Root Beer, and Seltzer Water. Some good patent drugs are still used in newly formulated and useful forms: Phillips Milk of Magnesia, Vick’s Vapor Rub, Bayer Aspirin, and Goody’s Powders.

Since the patent drugs’ ingredients were not included, patients could potentially overdose themselves if they were on a prescribed medicine with similar effects. Needless to say, this could be deadly if one were on Digitalis already and took a “natural” remedy with Foxglove in it.

These cure-alls and remedies were falsely claimed to be patented because their creators did not want their secret ingredients exposed. But in the late 1800’s the producers of theses quack drugs were called to task by the Council on Pharmacy and Chemistry with the American Medical Association. After the FDA was formed in 1927 patented drugs were mandated to offer an accurate list of ingredients with their proportions and have a scientific-based beneficial action without deadly side effects. The previous patent drugs usually met only one or none of these requirements.

A summary by an author known only as Crabbe gives an accurate affect of these cure-alls:

No class escapes them- from the poor man’s pay
The nostrum takes no trifling part away;
Time, too, with cash is wasted; tis the fate of real helpers to be called too late;
Thus find the sick, when (time and patience gone)
Death with a tenfold terror hurries on.

In the early 1900s an interesting and perhaps less harmful treatment was Electrotherapy, produced by a low voltage battery through wires to electrodes or paddles placed on the body. This “wonder” treatment could “cure you and help you sleep better” or invigorate you. No prescription required! The Coulton Violet Ray was another such treatment that was also found to have no scientific basis. Both of these money wasters “fell on disrepute.”

Blood letting and leeches were used to “bleed” out the unbalanced blood humor of the body for over 2000 years. At one time it was believed that blood was one of the four humors that kept our bodies balanced and well. Scarrifiers, lancets, and devices with 20 razors (said to be less painful) were in the doctors’ arsenal for blood letting to restore equilibrium among the humors.

Of course if one was blood letted too often or too much, they could die or become less able to fight their disease.

The leeches did not cause pain when attached because they secreted a local anesthetic before sucking blood.

Thankfully the medical field has come a long way. You don’t need to get an electric fez to regrow  your hair, although there are some cures for this that truly sound suspiciously similar to the promises of the old days! We still need to be wary and check cure-alls before we use them.

Thanks to the Oakwood Cemetery for the seminar given by Annie Anderson, Jennie Schindler and Jan Gwaltney of The Country Doctor Museum.


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