Potions From the Past Held More Than a Snake-Oil Promise: Study04/08/13
SUNDAY, April 7 (HealthDay News) -- Researchers applying
21st-century science to investigate a collection of 19th-century
medicines discovered that the antique jars held both noxious and
promising potions once sold as quick cures for everything from
commonplace to dreaded diseases.
The colorful collection of old and ornate medicine jars was
stored in the back halls of the Henry Ford Museum, in Dearborn,
Mich., as part of the facility's "Health Aids" collection.
Mark Benvenuto, a professor of chemistry at the University of
Detroit, Mercy, worked with undergraduate students to analyze the
contents of 25 of the containers. Using X-ray fluorescence for the
solid materials and nuclear magnetic resonance for the liquids,
they spent only about five minutes per container to identify each
container's chemical content, he said.
The results of their findings are slated to be presented April 7
at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society in New
The medication labels revealed little about what was inside:
Hollister's Golden Nugget Tablets, Dr. F.G. Johnson's French Female
Pills, Reynolds and Parmley's Female Health Restorative, and
DeBell's Kidney Pills.
But Benvenuto discovered a wide range of ingredients in the
containers, including heavy metals such as mercury, lead and
silver; calcium and zinc; manganese and potassium, and arsenic.
Five samples contained radioactive thorium.
While the presence of some of the heavy metals may be due to
contamination from their storage containers, arsenic and mercury
were known to be common treatments for syphilis, Benvenuto said.
Lead tastes sweet, so it may have been added to medicine to make it
more palatable, he added.
The medications were typically sold by physicians in stores, by
mail or in traveling medicine shows, long before clinical trials
and U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval were required to
ensure the safety and effectiveness of treatments, Benvenuto
explained. They were called "patent medications," but the term
referred to the fact they were created by individuals and
considered to be trade secrets, not officially registered with the
U.S. patent office, he noted.
"These medications represent a first step toward the medical establishment we have today," said Benvenuto. "The doctors who made these medicines were systematically going at trial and error based on what seemed to make people better. Maybe some were just complete shysters and quacks who wanted to make money, but some [of the medicines] were apparently worthwhile."
Why were such powerful ingredients used in these
Government historian Michael Sappol, of the U.S. National
Library of Medicine, explained that the strong treatments were
necessary to help a patient believe the medication was having an
impact. "Drugs were made to make you experience something so you'd
feel healed or treated," he explained. "The medicine probably
wouldn't have had a healing effect on your body except as a placebo
And, Benvenuto added, the ornate medicine bottles with elegant
lettering and fascinating names probably added to the perceived
value of the medication for consumers. "Some were just gorgeous;
that possibly added to the perception the drugs worked," he
While it's tempting to see these antique medications as quack
cures, Sappol said it was important to understand that the ongoing
development of these drugs was part of a good physician's process
of testing and evaluating treatments.
"If you went to a regular doctor in 1885 and said you thought you had syphilis, that doctor would probably give you mercury and some other stuff," he explained. "And a quack doctor might also give you mercury. So you have to be very careful in making the distinction between quack medicine and regular medicine. We all know it's a fine line."
Just as physicians in the 19th century responded to consumer
demand for quick fixes, doctors today are often sensitive to the
same sort of requests, Sappol added. "Doctors now want to know if
something worked, and if you say it hasn't, they try something
else. In some ways, the medicine we have now is a legacy of that
time," he said.
Benvenuto suggested that modern consumers shouldn't be too smug
about how the state of medicine today compares to the 19th
"I wonder what chemists studying our medications 100 or 200 years from now might think about us," he said.
The data and conclusions of research presented at medical
meetings should be viewed as preliminary until published in a
Learn more about the history of medicine from the
Library of Medicine.
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