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A Look Back at Old-Time Medicines

Antique medicines contained everything from arsenic to opium -- and promised instant cures.
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

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 ingredient: morphine.

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 science.

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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.

Old medicines and antique urinals? Check out one collector's story.

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 time.

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 cholera."

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 cold.

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