Health in America
Health in America
Health in America

Patent Medicines

Patent medicines, such as Dr. W. B. Caldwell’s Syrup Pepsin, claimed cures for a variety of physical ailments, c. 1900.

In the 19th century, doctors had few cures and lacked a basic understand­ing of biology to be able to treat most illnesses. They continued to rely on tradi­tional remedies, such as bleeding, purging and vomiting, to relieve the patient's symptoms.

Into that void came patent medi­cine. Not actually patented - their ingredients were kept secret - these medicines were hawked at traveling medicine shows and through newspa­per and magazine advertising. Like Dr. Caldwell's Syrup Pepsin, they claimed to cure many ills. Because approxi­mately 80% of illnesses cure them­selves, these medicines could boast a high success rate.

Cocaine was a common ingredient in late 19th century pain-killing medicine.

Patent medicines consisted of alco­hol, opium or some narcotic deriva­tive. Given these ingredients, they could offer people temporary relief from what ailed them, but did not cure disease. The dangers of patent medi­cines led Congress to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, to ensure that drugs had accurate labeling, but manufacturers did not have to have safety trials until 1938 or prove the effectiveness of drugs until 1962.

With the introduction of sulfa drugs in the 1930s and penicillin and streptomycin in the 1940s, the medi­cal establishment pushed alternative medicine to the side. More recently, growing concerns about the limits, costs and other drawbacks of modern medicine and the apparent effective­ness of alternate treatments such as acupuncture, herbs and chiropractic in many cases has led to greater public acceptance of these approaches to disease.

Lee Him selling patent medicines in Wyoming, c. 1880.