The Germ Theory and Patent Medicine

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The Germ Theory and Patent Medicine


Unregulated Medicines. In the days before the germ theory was established, many different substances were used to treat specific disorders. Indeed physicians so despaired of finding effective cures that many subscribed to a doctrine of therapeutic nihilism, prescribing as little as possible and making no claims that the available remedies would work. Since governments did not regulate medicines, anyone could invent one and try to sell it. Patent medicines got their name because their manufacturers had secured or applied for government patents, granting them exclusive rights to make and sell particular remedies. Such a patent protected the seller, not the buyer, and attested to a products originality, not its curative powers.

Marketing the Cure-All. Manufacturers of patent medicines typically claimed that they cured many ailments, sometimes a very long list of them. Many had scientific-sounding names, such as Lithiated Hydrangea, Extract of Pinus Canadensis, or Syrup of the Hypophosphites. Some stressed the chemical apparatus supposedly used to make them, such as Dr. Judges Hydrogenated Air. Many included a foreign or exotic element in their names. Oriental associations were particularly favored, such as Dr. Lins Celestial Balm of China, Careys Chinese Catarrh Cure, or Japanese Life Pills, but there were also Crimean Bitters, Mecca Compound, and Mexican Mustang Liniment. Patent medicine manufacturers were pioneers in mass marketing and in making psychological appeals through advertising. Frequently the name of a product stressed its beneficial nature, as with Swifts Sure Specific, Dr. Sweets Infallible Liniment, and Dr. Warners Safe Cure.

Changing with the Times. When the germ theory became widely known in the 1880s and 1890s, patent-medicine makers jumped on that bandwagon too. William Radam, inventor of Radams Microbe Killer, went so far as to devise an elaborate, but absurd, theory that he expounded in his book Microbes and Microbe Killer (1890). Picking up on Pasteurs experiments on fermentation, he said microbes cause decay and fermentation, which is the basic underlying disease, and he asserted that microbes are all the same, causing ailments that only appear different when they infect different people. Thus, he billed his product as a universal non-poisonous antiseptic, which in addition to its curative powers also preserved fruit and meat. He manufactured the potion, whose main ingredient was water, in seventeen factories.

Toward Government Regulation. The greatest enemy of patent medicines was Harvey Washington Riley, who was appointed chief chemist of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1883. He launched Bulletin 13 (with ten parts published over a period of sixteen years and totaling fourteen hundred pages), describing and analyzing chemical modifications of foodstuffs, including medicines, that were commonly available to the consumer. As a result of his efforts the first Pure Food Bill was introduced in the Senate in 1899. It did not pass, but momentum continued to grow until a similar bill became law in 1906, giving government the tools to make patent-medicine manufacturers prove their claims.


In 1885 Edward Drinker Cope was enraged by the appointment of his rival Othniel Charles Marsh as president of the National Academy of Sciences proof, Cope thought, of his opponents political machinations. In October of that year Cope aired some of his beliefs about Marsh in a letter to a former student, passing on information given to him by some of Marshs former assistants:

The four men who have left Marsh wish to place themselves and him right before the Scientific public. They have found M. to be more a pretender than even I had supposed him to be. I have recently seen a statement in [manuscript] which sets forth a number of things which are worse than I had supposed. It is now clear to me that Marsh is simply a scientifico-political adventurer who has succeeded, in ways other than those proceeding from scientific merit, in placing himself in the leading scientific position in the country. It is now perfectly certain that he, M., has not written either of the quarto books that bear his name, and it is doubtful whether he has written much or any of his 800 papers.

I consider that his career is a disgrace to our scientific community, and one that we ought to wipe out. The American National Academy of Sciences will stink in the noses of corresponding bodies in other countries.

Source: Nathan Reingold, Science in Twentieth-Century America: A Documentary History (New York: Hill & Wang, 1964).


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

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The Germ Theory and Patent Medicine

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