Popular Science Monthly/Volume 39/May 1891/Evolution of Patent Medicine

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"THIS wonderful remedy works like a charm"—so reads a bold advertisement now lying before me. Why should any patent medicine work like a "charm"? The modern notion of a medical remedy working like a "charm" is a survival of the belief that certain secret remedies are charms. This is the savage's view of all medicines. He mixes his medicines with magic. His remedies are magical remedies, his songs of healing are incantations, his prayers for restoration to health are magic formula, his doctors are magicians.

Patent medicine had its origin in folk medicine. We are thus enabled to examine patent medicine as a magical practice and art of gradual development and of slow and subtle transformation. We shall argue that the blind, unthinking faith in a secret compound known as "patent medicine" is, for the most part, a survival. Further, we shall be able to show how magical practices, as of the Indians, develop into the remedies of the folk, of the people who share least in progress; how folk practices, in turn, in the hands of the mediæval leech and alchemist, become "occult science"; how, finally, out of leechcraft and quackery was evolved our curious system of patent medicine. The modern doctor is the heir of the leech, apothecary, and alchemist. He too seeks the elixir of life. He now makes a lymph more wonderful than the witches' ointment, which enabled people to sail through the air.

Briefly stated, patent medicines are drugs compounded of unknown ingredients, and are intended for the relief or cure of the various ills that flesh is heir to. They always have been, and still are, prepared and put up in an entirely different way from all other medical compounds. In one sense, the word "patent" means plain or unconcealed, but that is the reverse of the meaning of the medicine in question. Time was when the state, for purpose of revenue, allowed the venders of medical mixtures to take advantage of the patent law. By an act of Parliament a duty was levied on bottles or packages containing prepared drugs, and a stamp showed that the tax had been paid. This regulation was early adopted by the United States, but a few years ago the law was wiped off our statute-books, and, to-day, no tax or license is necessary.

Now, in all patent medicines, whether ancient or modern, there are two elements—the element which we now regard as magical and that which we regard as mysterious.

The notions entertained of medicines and medicine-men by people in a low stage of culture are pretty much alike in different parts of the world. Everywhere savages attribute disease to evil spirits, revengeful enemies, and to various occult influences. Naturally enough, priests among rude people are doctors, and doctors are priests. The medicine-man is priest-doctor. Mr. Mooney, who has made a thorough study of the theory and practice of Cherokee medicine, observes that "every doctor is a priest, every application is accompanied by a prayer and a sacred song." He found that plants were selected on account of "some connection between their appearance and the symptoms of the disease."[1]

Here we meet with the magical element in medicine; for it is one of the recognized principles of magic that things like each other, in color or form, influence each other in a mystic way. On this belief in a real and material connection between an object and its image, or between things like each other, is based one half of the magic of ancient and mediæval times. Thus, the Cherokee doctor invariably prescribes a yellowish decoction for biliousness. Believing that heart troubles are caused by the lungs becoming wrapped up about the heart and impeding its action, the patient is treated with a preparation of fern leaves, because these leaves when young are coiled up, but unwrap as they grow older. Again, the medicine-man not only works on analogy or resemblance, but his remedies are put up in a mysterious way. The patient must not know the kind of stuff he is swallowing. According to Dr. Archie Stockwell,[2] the Indian doctor thinks that "a remedy to be of any value should be secret." To the same effect is the testimony of another expert.[3] "To keep their medicine from the gaze of the profane, a medicine-bag is prepared from the skin of birds or small animals"—so writes Mr. Paul Beckwith.

Once more, certain plants and roots are endowed with, magical virtues, chiefly in the way of charms. Like the Homeric Greeks, semi-cultured people believe that "certain roots ward off the evil influences of spirits." Mr. Theall well puts it, when he says that "charms and medicines are classed together by the Kaffirs." Among the ancients the art of medicine was little more than a trade in charms, philters, and amulets. In his history of folk medicine, Mr. Black mentions many of these curious remedies. Let it, therefore, be enough to say that all folk nostrums are believed to work like charms; otherwise they would not be prescribed.

The patent-medicine man can put anything he likes in his preparation, because his patients have unquestioning faith in nostrums mysteriously compounded. Thus, when the Chinese physician is out of drugs, he writes the prescription on a piece of paper, rolls it into pills, and the sick man swallows it. The whole theory of early patent medicine is based on analogy or on the association of ideas: for example, it makes no difference whether you swallow the name of the remedy or whether you take the remedy itself.

This theory was fully worked out in the mind cures and faith cures of the middle ages. Study the origin and history of plant names. Scan the list, and what do you find?

Some plants have animal prefixes, as dog-elder, dog-rose, cat'stail, cow-bane, etc. Other plants derive their names from religious sources. Thus they are associated with the Virgin Mary, Saint John the Baptist, Saint James. Likewise, the Latter-day Saints have particular plants dedicated to their memory. Most of the plants with mystic names were supposed to have magical virtues, and so they were largely used in folk medicine. The weird associations clustering around many roots and herbs were enough to invest them with great repute. According to Mr. Dyer, "the plants which formed the witches' pharmacopœia were generally selected either from legendary associations or by reason of their poisonous and soporific qualities." In folk medicine, herbs are used not so much for their inherent medical properties as for their reputed magical virtues.

Another stage in the evolution of patent medicine is typified in the therapeutics of mediæval mystics and alchemists. The great plant in their pharmacopœia was the mandrake. Why? Simply because the roots of this plant were shaped like the human body. A preparation of mummy was also widely used. Why? On the magical reasoning that flesh thus embalmed would preserve the body impregnated with it. Then the alchemists believed that a solution of gold had great medicinal virtues. Why? On the theory that the strength and quality of the metal might be communicated. to the body of the person taking it. Still more potent than the aurum potabile was the elixir vitæ, by which people preserved their youth and lived forever.

The magical element in patent medicine actually won scientific repute in the "doctrine of signatures"—a doctrine which held that plants and minerals, by their external character, indicated the particular disease for which Nature had intended them as remedies. Thus the Euphrasia, or eyebright, was good for the eyes; the wood-sorrel, being shaped like a heart, for the heart; the liverwort for the liver, and so on. Pettigrew, in his history of medical superstition, says that this fanciful and magical notion "led to serious errors in practice," and often to fatal results.

Observe that, at this stage of its evolution, patent medicine is herb medicine, and so it remained for a long time. The materials of the healing art were all vegetable. The patent-medicine man was a dealer in herbs, and his shop is well described by Romeo:

"And in his needy shop a tortoise hung,
An alligator stuffed, and other skins
Of ill-shaped fishes; and about his shelves
A beggarly account of empty boxes,
Green earthen pots, bladders and musty seeds,
Remnants of pack-thread and old cakes of roses,
Were thinly scattered, to make up a show."

In those days the barber-surgeon and the apothecary were the recognized exponents of the healing art; to them patients repaired for treatment. "The students of medicine," Mr. Goadby, in his England of Shakespeare, says, "were usually extensive dealers in charms and philters." They were as ready "to sell love-philters to a maiden as narcotics to a friar." The Arabic physicians introduced chemical and mineral remedies into European pharmacopoeias, and then patent medicines took a turn for the worse.

The mantle of alchemists and witches seems to have fallen upon certain "wise" men and women, whose medicinal preparations were invested with a dash of magic; so that their nostrums were held in popular favor. Lord Bacon complained of the weakness and credulity of men in his day. "They will," said he, "often prefer a mountebank or witch before a learned physician." Secret preparations were put up by physicians of repute. Thus, Sir Kenelm Digby made a sympathetic powder which was reputed to cure wounds. He even published a book of Choice and Experimented Receipts in Physick and Chirurgery. The efforts of physicians were directed to the invention of nostrums and charms, not to the cause of the disease or to the action of their remedies. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the manufacture of "secret" preparations increased enormously, and "choice receipts" were sold for large sums. Thus, the English Government paid one thousand pounds to one Johanna Stevens for her mysterious specific for the stone, which turned out to be calcined snail-shells.

Indeed, the sale of nostrums in England had now grown to he a most flourishing and profitable business. To such proportion did the trade grow that at last the Crown stepped in and demanded a duty and a restriction upon prepared drugs.

The two statutes which originated and regulated the right of compounding preparations of medicines were passed in 1783. The first act granted to his Majesty "a stamp duty upon all licenses to be taken by certain persons uttering and vending medicines, and certain stamp duties on all medicines sold under such licenses, or under authority of his Majesty's letters patent, except such as had served a regular apprenticeship to any surgeon or apothecary as chemist and druggist."

Two years later, by act, 25 George III, chap. 22, other and more liberal conditions and privileges were granted, as follows: "Any person whatsoever who has, or claims to have, any secret art or sole right of compounding preparations of drugs, and advertising and recommending the same as specifics for the cure or relief of any complaint or malady, shall affix a Government stamp to the vials, vessels, or inclosures containing them."

Any one who violated the statute or who defrauded the state of the stamp duty was adjudged a felon. In the strong words of the statute, such a person "shall suffer death, as in case of felony, without benefit of clergy."

These statutes remained on the books, with little alteration or amendment, for nearly a hundred years. In 1868 the Pharmacy act was passed "to regulate the sale of poisons for the safety of the public." But section sixteen expressly says that "nothing heretofore contained shall extend to or interfere with the making or dealings in patent medicines." In 1875 another act was passed to the effect that, "a uniform duty of five shillings be payable throughout Great Britain."

The general patent acts of the United States were passed in 1790. They follow, in many respects, the old English legislation on the subject. The sole right of compounding medicines was allowed under the phrase, "composition of matter." What may be patented? The law says, "any new and useful art, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter." See the result. To take a noteworthy example: a patent was denied to the discoverers of the anæsthetic powers of chloroform and ether, but quacks, with their nostrums, could take out patents. In 1874 a law was passed abrogating the practice of copyrighting labels for patent medicine or other articles of manufacture, and, instead, provided for registering such labels in the Patent Office. Several States still have "trade-mark laws," by means of which the name of a popular patent medicine is secured against imitation.

In our own day, the patent-medicine business has developed into alarming proportions. There never was a time when so many people put faith in patent compounds. There never was a time when so many nostrums with mysterious ingredients have been sold. And, lastly, there never was a time when nostrums had so few claims in the healing art.

It is surprising that the American people still retain their faith in patent medicines. Rather than pay an educated physician a fee of two dollars, some people will spend that amount for a bottle or a box of patent medicine. They will try one nostrum after another until they are cured or killed. The superstition is not confined to the common folk alone. People who should know better are among the best customers of the nostrum-vender. The steady purchasers of patent medicines are the poor and ignorant. To be ignorant is to be credulous, and it is to the credulity of our people that the nostrum-vender appeals so strongly. The farmers and their families are afraid of the doctor, but they make riends with the quack. A correspondent of the New York Sun, in describing the peculiarities of Western farmers,[4] says: "If one patent medicine fails, it is because it is not the right patent medicine, and they try another. They prefer patent medicine, partly because there is a certain mystery about the ingredients, and they are put up in an attractive form."

It is not easy to calculate how many millions of dollars are spent by Americans on patent medicine every year. Think of the enormous expense required to keep a preparation before the public eye—calendars, almanacs, cook-books, cards, high-priced articles in all the daily papers. Of course, the money to pay for this comes from only one source—from people who buy the stuff. The sale of a certain "vegetable" compound is said to have amounted in one year to three million dollars, and one third of that went the next year in advertising. Now, to yield three millions at least six million bottles must have been sold. That gives one some idea of the number of people who use such preparations.

It would appear, then, from the lavish manner in which our people pour out their hard-earned money, that they like to be humbugged, so the veteran Barnum once bluntly remarked. If they want to spend their cash for patent medicine, is not that their own business? Yes; but should not the law step in and save the poor and ignorant from their own folly? No; that very question came up in a patent-medicine case in New York State.[5] The judge tersely summed up the whole matter thus: "As to the public, if these pills are an innocent humbug, by which both parties" (the litigants) "are trying to make money, I doubt whether it is my duty on that question of property, of right and wrong between them to step outside of the case and abridge the innocent individual liberty, which all persons must be presumed to have in common, of suffering themselves to be humbugged."

But the trouble is, that too many patent pills and medicines are not "innocent" humbugs. On the contrary, a large class of patent preparations are deadly poisons. We do not call medicine in which chlorodyne, calomel, or opium is an ingredient, "innocent." We need only point out that most soothing-sirups contain opium; that most face preparations have arsenic and oxide of zinc; that most "stomach bitters," so called, are composed of powerful drugs or whiskey, principally; that most of the health-restorers contain narcotics.

The unrestricted sale of secret or quack medicines is objectionable. It has now become a matter of serious importance; it renders murder, suicide, and crime easy. People injured by taking patent medicine are not without a legal remedy. The Supreme Court of Georgia recently decided that nostrum-venders are liable for damages to any person who, relying upon their cleverly worded testimony, takes their baneful stuff,[6] To quote from the decision: "These proprietary or patent medicines are secret, or intended to be secret, as to their contents. They "(the venders)" expect to derive a profit from such secrecy. They are therefore liable for all injuries sustained by any one who takes their medicine in such quantities as may be prescribed by them... . He "(the victim)" has a right to rely upon the statement and recommendation of the proprietor, printed and published through the world."

It is time that some restrictions were thrown around the sale of patent medicines. Venders of secret remedies practice cruel and dangerous deception. The traffic in some sixty thousand nostrums, many of them containing deadly drugs, has given rise to an anomalous state of affairs. For obvious reasons, the law should compel nostrum-venders to, make public the names and proportions of the ingredients. That is what is done in other countries. Even the Japanese are in advance of us in regulating the sale of patent medicine. They compel the proprietor of a secret remedy to present a sample, with the name and the amounts of the ingredients, directions for its use, and explanations of its supposed efficacy. Or, we might adopt the French plan of making nostrum-venders declare the composition on a label and to submit the stuff to official analysis. In England, as in this country, the unrestricted sale of patent medicine has been again and again discussed in print, and the absence of proper legislation there has allowed quacks and impostors to grow and nourish.

Frankly speaking, nostrum-venders no longer rely on the curative power of their drugs. They depend now on the power of advertising almost exclusively. They have a literary man to "write up" the remedy in ingenious fashion; an artist to show the patient "before and after" using the panacea; a poet to compose odes and lyrics; a liar who rivals Munchausen; and a forger who signs all kinds of testimonials. The great point seems to be to make people feel that they are in the last stages of decline. A cleverly worded circular is enough to give one a fit of the blues. In the opening chapter of his amusing book, Three Men in a Boat, Mr. Jerome hits off this particular point. "I never read a patent-medicine advertisement," says one character, "without being impelled to the conclusion that I am suffering from the particular disease therein dealt with, in its most virulent form." It is not uncommon for the nostrum-vender to offer one thousand dollars reward for any case he fails to cure. He is safe enough, even if the remedy kills, for there is no time specified within which a cure is to be effected.

To this, then, patent medicine comes at last: "This wonderful remedy works like a charm," or else not at all.


  1. Journal of American Folk Lore, vol. iii, p. 42.
  2. Popular Science Monthly, September, 1886.
  3. Smithsonian Reports, 1886, Part I, p. 246.
  4. Aug. 24, 1890.
  5. 18 Howard's Pract. Reports, 242.
  6. The Blood Calm Company vs. Cooper, decided October 14, 1889.