1783-1815: Charlatans and Patent Medicines
Charlatans and Patent Medicines
Patent Medicines . Colonial Americans had imported from England a variety of patent medicines (so called because they had received official patents from the British government). When the Revolutionary War cut off the supply of Daffy’s Elixir and Bateman’s Pectoral Drops, enterprising Americans began creating their own packaged herbal remedies. The new confidence in the United States as strong enough to win a war against the most powerful nation on earth led to a belief that everything about America was special, including their own medications, which, because they were made from American ingredients, would have special curative powers for the people of the United States. As early as 1800 a newspaper warned that “the venders of patent medicines in almost every capital town in the United States are fattening on the weakness and folly of a deluded public.” The colorful names and attractive packaging (it was often the labels rather than the ingredients that were patented) helped create an enormous market for patent medicines.
And in this period of “heroic” medicine, a mild patent medicine was an appealing alternative to more-debilitating cures such as bleeding.
Mesmerism . In addition to patent medicines, new theories about universal cures were widespread. Anton Mesmer was an Austrian physician whose cures by “animal magnetism” became a popular fad in the 1780s, especially in Paris. He conducted séances in which patients were cured by contact with a universal fluid (to which of course, only Mesmer had access). What he had discovered was the power of suggestion, and the early use of what would become hypnotism; the only “magnetism” was in Mesmer’s personality, and he was discredited by a group of scientists including Benjamin Franklin. The verb mesmerize is derived from his name.
Perkins’s Metallic Tractors . Another magnetic personality who was able to exploit the power of suggestion was Connecticut physician Elisha Perkins. In 1795 Perkins introduced a theory that pain was caused by excessive “electric fluid” which could be drawn away from affected parts by metallic objects. But not just any metal object would do; only Perkins’s patented “tractors,” small pointed devices, supposedly made from precious metals, selling for twenty-five dollars a pair, could cure pain. Although a convention of doctors in his home state declared him a fraud, Perkins sold his tractors to an eager American public as quickly as he could make them. Perkins died caring for the sick in New York’s 1799 yellow fever epidemic. His son Benjamin successfully promoted the tractors in England, claiming to have cured more than 1.5 million people. However, when an English doctor declared that he obtained the same effect using tractors carved from wood and painted to look like the expensive Perkins tractors, the “electric” basis of Perkins’s claim was discredited. The fad soon passed, although the popular desire for miracle cures did not.
Thompsonianism . One of the most popular health fads in American history was created by Samuel Thompson, a New Hampshire farmer who combined patent medicine with a “system” that could be administered by anyone, with no physician required. This “every-man-his-own-physician” idea was popular with independent-minded Americans. Like the theory-prone physicians of the day, Thompson was convinced that “all disease is the effect of one general cause, and may be removed by one general remedy.” In the Thompsonian system the cause was cold and the cure was heat. He advocated steam baths and plants such as pepper that induced sweating, as well as enemas and purgatives (using wildflowers such as lobelia) to induce vomiting and clear out any “obstructions.” Indeed, to Thompson health was very much a matter of plumbing: preserving the natural heat balance in the body was like knowing “how to clear a stove and pipe when clogged with soot, that the fire may burn free, and the whole room be warmed as before.”
Medical Establishment . Thompson’s simplistic theory was just as infuriating to medical doctors as it was appealing to people who feared doctors and their bloodletting practices. A rival physician had Thompson arrested for murder in 1809, charging that he had administered too much lobelia to a young patient who vomited so violently that he died. In a dramatic court scene a prosecution witness exhibited the plant that had caused the victim’s death. Thompson’s lawyer promptly ate the plant, which happened to be marsh rosemary rather than lobelia, with no ill effects. Thompson was cleared, and soon afterward had the added pleasure of seeing the physician who had accused him convicted of graverobbing. But the medical establishment continued its fight against quackery, to the extent that state laws forbidding the Thompsonian system were enacted. Thompson took his case to Washington and received a patent for his system in 1813. (He would later claim that President James Madison himself had endorsed it.) His system became increasingly popular in an age of intensifying democratic idealism: aristocratic, highly educated physicians were not needed when Thompson’s system could make healers of everyday men and women. Yet Thompson’s good fortune eventually ran out. Other charlatans stole his system, and competing systems such as homeopathy came into vogue. Thompson spent his final years unhappily trying to protect
his system and died in 1843 futilely taking his own medicine. However, he was successful in one respect: his efforts helped turn the tide against the practice of bleeding.
James Harvey Young, The Toadstool Millionaires (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961).