Patent Medicines

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Patent medicines were products that claimed to cure a variety of common illnesses, including many, such as cancer and diabetes, that are still not curable. These products appeared in American homes of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries because access to medical practitioners was limited, especially in rural areas, and because physicians typically engaged in such frightening practices as bloodletting.

The first patent medicines to appear in America came from England. In mid-eighteenth-century Great Britain, some producers of medical preparations obtained royal patents for their products. The patents protected the owners' rights to the products and gave some prestige to the medicines. Later, the term patent medicine was applied to any product of this type, whether patented or not.

In the eighteenth century medical theorists believed that disease could be driven from the body only by a substance as appalling as the illness. Therefore, the worse a medicine tasted or smelled, the greater its corrective power. These foul-tasting, foul-smelling products had ingredients that had an effect on the body, thus giving the illusion of a cure in action. Bateman's Drops, Dalby's Carminative, and Godfrey's Cordial contained the sedative opium. Hooper's Pills purged the digestive system and induced menstruation. British Oil and Steer's Opodeldoc were both liniments containing ammonia that irritated the skin.

The popularity of the English remedies owed much to the fact that, though the ingredients might vary, the shape of the bottle did not. Even an illiterate could identify a favorite nostrum. This allowed enterprising American merchants to refill the familiar bottles with cheaper-selling concoctions of their own creation when the American Revolution interrupted shipments of British products. English medicines never regained their prewar sales once the end of fighting in 1782 permitted their return to the American market.

After the Revolution American physicians began a search to discover American herbs that could relieve ailing Americans of "unrepublican dependence" on European medicines. In 1793 Congress enacted a law granting patents to inventors. In 1796 Samuel Lee, Jr., of Windham, Connecticut, became the first American to obtain a patent on a medicine, for Bilious Pills, which purported to fight biliousness as well as yellow fever, jaundice, dysentery, dropsy, worms, and female complaints. Whereas most patent medicine makers kept their ingredients secret and patented the packaging, Lee revealed that he used gamboges, aloes, soap, and nitrate of potassa. More important, as he emphasized in advertising, he used no mercury.

In 1793 the prominent physician Benjamin Rush attributed all physical ailments to hypertension (high blood pressure) and prescribed bloodletting to the point of unconsciousness as a cure. Rush also recommended such tremendous purgative doses of mercury that patients lost teeth and, occasionally, jawbones. Whereas physicians embraced Rush's stringent methods, which were known at the time as "heroic medicine," patent medicine merchants offered frightened patients a mild and pleasant mode of treatment. Such merchants regularly attacked the brutal therapy of the regular doctor while improving the palatability of their concoctions. Swain's Panacea owed much of its success to a delicious flavor, and sugar-coated pills were first introduced by patent medicine makers. The popularity of patent medicines as a treatment regiment continued to rise throughout the nineteenth century.

See alsoDeath and Dying; Drugs; Health and Disease; Medicine; Professions: Physicians .


Holbrook, Stewart Hall. The Golden Age of Quackery. New York: Macmillan, 1959.

Young, James Harvey. The Toadstool Millionaires: A Social History of Patent Medicines in America before Federal Regulation. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1961.

Caryn E. Neumann