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A Look Back at Old-Time Medicines

Antique medicines contained everything from arsenic to opium -- and promised instant cures.

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]

Others favored open-ended labeling. Cerralgine Food of the Brain boasted of being "a safe cure for Headache, Neuralgia, Nervousness, Insomnia, Etc."

Hucksters didn't just limit themselves to elixirs and pills. They also invented a dizzying array of devices, such as electric insoles and magic shoes, to cure sore feet and crippling conditions.

Consider, too, the Health Jolting Chair of the 1880s. It resembled a garden-variety armchair--only rigged with springs and levers. Its advertising promised that the chair would give "efficient exercise to the essentially important nutritive organs of the body."

According to the manufacturer, all that jiggling and jolting was essential for "millions of human beings who may be living sedentary lives through choice or necessity." The chair was, "For certain classes of invalids a veritable Treasure-Trove." [sic]

End of an Era

The golden age of patent medicines ended in the early 1900s, notes the FDA web site, when muckraking journalists wrote exposés and the federal government cracked down with new legislation to prohibit adulteration or misbranding of foods and drugs, as well as false advertising.

Also, as the state of legitimate medicine evolved, new cures replaced the old. When doctors began treating syphilis with penicillin, a grateful generation was spared the toxic effects of arsenic and mercury, including inflammation of the gums, destruction of the teeth and jaws, and organ damage.

Opium and other addictive drugs also fell by the wayside once scientists realized their pitfalls. Novocain replaced its predecessor, cocaine, as an anesthetic.

Looking Ahead

No doubt, more medical advances on the horizon will make some of today's medicines outdated. So perhaps it's wise to avoid smugness.

After all, will sophisticated new cancer treatments make today's harsh chemotherapy agents look like the arsenic and mercury of the past? "I'm sure people will wonder why we put up with it," Whorton says.

Will future generations be aghast that that we pumped people's foreheads full of Botox? "I think it's pretty strange now," Whorton adds. "I don't think we have to wait."

And in the year 2250, will folks be chortling over our antiquated Internet, purveyor of fad diets, bust developers, male enhancers, and overnight baldness cures?

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Reviewed on May 08, 2006

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