Dark Secrets of Medicine Shows
mp3 | wma | wav

Patent medicinesDave: Norbert, listen to the names of these medicines: Dr. F.G. Johnson’s French Female Pills or, how about, Dr. Sawens Magic Nervine Pills?

Norbert: You can’t be serious.

Dave: There were a bunch of these and they were sold from the 18th to the early 20th centuries. As a group, they were called “patent medicines” – untested medicines sold in shops, traveling medicine shows and through mail order.

The term patent medicine originated in England as proprietary medicines whose ingredients were given government protection. Among the early ones to arrive in America were Daffy’s Elixir Salutis for “colic and griping” and Dr. Bateman’s Pectoral Drops. People found “patent medicines” for just about any ailment without a prescription. These products made outlandish claims, but did they really work and what was in them?

Recently, a group of researchers sought to find out by testing fifty of the hundreds of products. Most contained vegetable extracts and a lot of alcohol. Others had potent drugs such as opium, cocaine or heroin, and were given to colicky babies, sometimes with tragic results.

A few, such as the French Female pills, did have potentially healthy ingredients such as iron, calcium and zinc. But even these contained lead, and others had heavy metals such as silver, mercury, and arsenic.

The patent medicine industry was lucrative and thrived unregulated until 1906 when Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act. A further blow was dealt to the industry in 1938 when medicines had to list their ingredients. Though patent medicines have disappeared, today we have dietary supplements that also claim great health benefits. I wonder what future scientists will think of the medicines and supplements we use today?