A Look Back at Old-Time Medicines

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

From the WebMD Archives

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.

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.

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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.

Continued

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?

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on May 08, 2006

Sources

SOURCES: James C. Whorton, PhD, medical historian; professor, University of Washington School of Medicine. Walsh, James J. Cures: The Story of the Cures That Fail, D. Appleton and Company, 1923. FDA web site: "The Patent Medicine Menace." State University of New York-Upstate Medical University Health Sciences Library web site: "Marketing Medicines: Help or Harm?" State University of New York-University at Buffalo (Addiction Research Unit) web site: "Before Prohibition." Washington State University web site: "An Overview of Advertising."

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