originally published September 2, 2014
Along with the oil industry, the communications industry and the elevator ‘Close Door’ button industry, the pharmaceutical industry is one of the least trusted clubhouses in the great corporate tree. “They want to keep us sick.” “They’d rather treat us than cure us.” “I don’t speak English.” These are all impassioned criticisms I heard whilst skulking around my local pharmacy, asking strangers how they felt.
The problem with the pharmaceutical industry is that its sheer size has led to corruption and sophisticated flim-flammery, all in search of a quick profit off the desperation and ignorance of the common folk. Also, the industry has pretty much always been corrupt and full of flim-flammery. Only now the bullshit fits neatly into a pill instead of a good ol’ fashioned Wonder-Balm.
We have regulation now – oversight from way on high, which insists that someone actually prove that goat-scrotum extract cures eczema before they can advertise it on a product label. This is why the really fun claims of outlandish hooey can be found in the ‘supplement’ aisle these days. But even our modern snake oil derivatives can’t compare to the creative mangling of truth from the patent medicine days.
Back in the 1600’s, if you could make friends with someone in the royal camp you might be lucky enough to be issued ‘letters patent’. These were legal papers which allowed you to use the official royal endorsement in any of your advertising. For purveyors of bottled cures, this was a huge deal; it added a legitimacy to whatever freakish claims they might be making for their product. This led to the term ‘patent medicine’, which is misleading in that it’s not likely that any of these products were actually patented.
Besides, patenting these medicines would have been counterproductive. It would have meant disclosing the actual ingredients, and these manufacturers did not want that. This isn’t to say that every brewer of tonic and healing salve was out to screw over the public with placebo pastes and arbitrary guesswork (though many were); the fact is, people simply didn’t know much about how the body worked. Sometimes it came down to the application of sympathetic magic to the young field of pharmacology, or the belief that elements of nature that sort of looked like parts of the body could be used to heal those parts of the body. Got a skull fracture? Try out this cream made from shaved walnut shells.
Patent medicines launched the advertising industry. From the very beginning of the newspaper trade we can find pushers of panaceas, eager to cash in on the collective ignorance of the populace about how our innards function. When the official thumbs-up from the royals failed to carry as much weight, nostrum-makers turned to other tactics: fancy and glorious branding, travelling medicine shows, and incorporating Native American-sounding legitimacy into their claims were all effective ploys.
Dr. Morse’s Indian Root Pills were said to have been the brainchild of a mysterious American doctor who had lived among the natives for three years, learning all about the healing properties of roots and plants, none of which were specifically listed, yet which were all combined into this magical capsule that could “cleanse” the impurities in your blood. The true identity of Dr. Morse was never revealed, though we do know the pills were thrown on the market by a very non-medical businessman/politician from Brockville, Ontario named William Henry Comstock.
If you didn’t want to take advantage of pretend-Native-Americanism, you could always toss in some exotic ingredient (the fruit of the baobab tree was a big one). Alternately, you could point to a mysterious locale for the guts of your healing juice (Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root was promoted as a ‘mild laxative’, in that it probably sent your internal organs on a desperate sprint to get the hell out of your body). Or you could get a little funky with technology.
When electricity and radio appeared on the scene, they quickly became tools of the hokum trade, again capitalizing on the fact that the average schmuck knew nothing about them. Italian physician Luigi Galvani had proven that electricity can make a dead frog’s legs twitch. Naturally, it made sense that humans should want to harness as much electricity as possible into their natural body humors. Violet ray machines like the one above were meant to be rejuvenation devices. Nostrums of herbs and liquid bullshittery were concocted to make the body more conductive. Going bald? Try an electric fez!
Then there was Albert Abrams.
Albert Abrams believed his machines could diagnose and cure almost anything. He was a legitimate doctor, suspicious of numerous modern medical procedures (we’re talking about early 20th-century “modern”), and he appears to have truly wanted to help people. At first, anyhow. Then along came his theory that electrons were the basic element of all life, and that properly-configured machinery could fix anything. Doc Abrams believed he could use his machines to conduct his medical practice over the telephone.
The Dynomizer (no, seriously) could diagnose any disease from either a drop of the patient’s blood or a sample of their handwriting. The Oscilloclast and Radioclast would produce frequencies that could attack diseases. The Dynomizer would often diagnose complex cocktails of cancer, diabetes, syphilis and something called bovine syphilis. Fortunately, the Oscilloclast could usually cure these maladies. A member of the American Medical Association sent one doctor a blood sample that the Dynomizer claimed to be heavy with malaria, diabetes, cancer and (naturally) syphilis. Turns out it was a drop of rooster blood.
Lawsuits and fraud charges galore poured into the inboxes of doctors who were using Doc Abrams’ machines o’ malarkey. Abrams himself might have testified at one malpractice trial, but he had the smarts to die of pneumonia before the court date, thus ensuring his reputation as a scam artist would only be revealed posthumously.
Eventually, journalism and government investigation triumphed, and most of the patent medicine deception racket began to disappear. A number of these so-called miracle tonics contained narcotic substances, which were great for providing actual apparent medical results – in particular those which contained opium derivatives, which actually did take care of coughs, diarrhea and pain (albeit with the icky side effect of addiction). Alcohol was a big ingredient, as was cocaine and cannabis. Beginning with Samuel Hopkins Adams’ 1905 article “The Great American Fraud” in Collier’s Weekly, the veil of medical hoax-pills began to lift.
The first Pure Food and Drug Act was passed in 1906, which didn’t prohibit medical products from containing alcohol and narcotics, but did insist that such ingredients be listed on the label. Most of these wonky products simply packed up and split, but some simply altered their formulas and remained on the market, including Bayer Aspirin, Doan’s Pills, Vicks VapoRub and Phillips’ Milk of Magnesia. Other products tweaked their innards and/or stopped marketing themselves as medical cures. These would include tonic water, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Dr Pepper and 7-Up.
Nowadays you can trust that the stuff you purchase for medical purposes probably does have some modicum of actual testing behind it – even if you believe the end result of its use may cause more harm than good, or that some grand pharmaceutical conspiracy is gunning to keep you sick and buying meds. But at least that stuff does something. That non-medicinal Ohio Buckeye sap you bought online to make your penis larger? That ain’t nothin’ but a big ol’ tube of snake oil.