Pity the poor Victorian-era family whose bottle of Mrs. Winslow's Soothing
Syrup ran dry. It was touted as an indispensable aid to quiet bawling babies
and teething tots, and it packed a wallop of an
Today, no one would dream of calming an infant with morphine, but the museum
of medicine is littered with such discarded remedies. Some were fanciful
potions that quacks concocted to make a buck, while others were legitimate --
even revered -- treatments that eventually yielded to more enlightened
The next time your doctor writes you a prescription, consider this: The
medication may not be approved for your specific condition or age group.
But you probably shouldn't call the medical board. The practice, called
"off-label" prescribing, is entirely legal and very common. More than one
in five outpatient prescriptions written in the U.S. are for off-label
"Off-label" means the medication is being used in a manner not specified in
the FDA's approved packaging label, or insert...
For example, opium suffers a tainted reputation these days. But doctors have
favored it throughout history, especially to control coughing and diarrhea.
"It was regarded as an all-purpose drug. One physician called it 'God's
own medicine,'" says James C. Whorton, PhD, a medical historian and
professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine.
'Legitimate' Medicine of an Earlier Era
Doctors used arsenic and mercury to treat syphilisbefore
the introduction of penicillin in the 1940s.
One company sold heroin tablets to relieve asthmasymptoms.
Cocaine drops for toothache came on the market after doctors discovered its
pain-relieving qualities. One Belgian company even promoted cocaine throat
lozenges as "indispensable for singers, teachers and orators." Dentists
and surgeons also used cocaine as an anesthetic.
While doctors of the late 1800s considered these drugs legitimate, a whole
range of shady patent medicines, sometimes called "nostrums," also
flourished during that period.
Traveling Medicine Shows
People bought nostrums from traveling medicine shows, and the cures beckoned
boldly from billboards and newspaper and magazine ads. "You couldn't get
away from them," Whorton says. "They were inescapable."
Many nostrums targeted vague "female complaints." The delicate dames
of yore didn't mention menstrual cramps and hot
flashes in polite company. But they were lining up to buy Lydia E.
Pinkham's Vegetable Compound, one of the most popular women's remedies of the
Plenty of other patent medicines flooded the American landscape, according
to a history posted on the web site of the FDA. They included: Fatoff Obesity Cream, Make-Man Tablets, and Antimorbific
Liver and Kidney Medicine. Also touted for "weak hearts, weak blood, weak
nerves" was a product called Anglo-American Heart Remedy. And Dr. Bonker's
Celebrated Egyptian Oil was available for "colic, cramps in the stomach and bowels, and
Another classic: Mack Mahon the Rattle Snake Oil King's Liniment for
Rheumatism and Catarrh. Catarrh? Not as weird as it sounds. Just an
old-fashioned way of saying congestion -- the kind that comes with the common
Good for All That Ails You
Some patent medicines simply took a scattershot approach. In 1862, Mixer's
Cancer and Scrofula Syrup
claimed to treat "Cancer, Tumors, Erysipelas, Abscesses, Ulcers,
Fever Sores, Goiter, Catarrh, Salt Rheum, Scald Head, Piles, Rheumatism, and
ALL BLOOD DISEASES." [sic]