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Patent Medicine Collection

The Great American Fraud

by Wayne Wood

Dr. Rudolph H. Kampmeier leans forward in his chair and holds up 10 fingers.

"Ten," he says. "When I graduated medical school, there were 10 drugs recognized by physicians as useful and potent."

It was 1923 when Kampmeier earned his M.D. from the University of Iowa, a time when, he remembers, "There were very few effective medications and people would make their own diagnosis and take their own medicines."

Their own medicines--patent medicines--medically ineffective, sometimes dangerous--are the subject of a current display at the Vanderbilt Medical Center Library. The display features bottles and tins of the medicines, along with some of the advertising materials used to hawk the preparations.

Kampmeier, an emeritus professor of medicine, began collecting the bottles at secondhand stores and flea markets about 20 years ago. This collecting was fueled by his memories of working at a country drugstore in Bennett, Iowa in the summers of 1916 and 1917.

"My brother-in-law was a physician in that town."

"We sold all this stuff over the counter," he says. "At the turn of the century, this was big business."

Kampmeier worked alone in the store in the mornings "Mainly as a soda jerk," and was joined in the afternoon by the owner, who was not a pharmacist.

Across the street was a saloon. "It sold beer, but had no hard liquor," he says.

A pretty good shot

For serious drinking, the drugstore was the place to go. Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound, a popular nostrum for women, was depending on the formula, 15 to 20 percent alcohol [see accompanying article].

"I knew some women who were really strong WCTUers who used Lydia Pinkham," says Kampmeier. "They got a pretty good shot," he laughs.

Dr. Hostetter's Stomach Bitters were another popular remedy. "It came in a square bottle--it looked like a Gilbey's Gin bottle," Kampmeier remembers. "I didn't know the alcohol content, but I knew why all the young bucks in town were buying it."

For the record, Hostetter's Bitters were 44.3 percent alcohol--more potent than 80 proof whiskey.

By contrast, beer is about 5 percent alcohol; wine is usually in the 11 or 12 percent range. Some modern medicines have their share of alcohol, too--Vicks Nyquil is 25% alcohol, for example, Contac, Jr.--a medicine for children--has 10 percent.

The library display was created by Mary Teloh and Tom Turley of the library's History of Medicine department; The Great American Fraud is the title of the display, and it is also the name of the series of articles by muckraker Samuel Hopkins Adams, who diligently researched patent medicines and medical quacks for Collier's Weekly. His expose helped educate the public and bestir Congress to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, and is the source for the written material of the display.

The quack and the dead

"Gullible America," Adams began his first article, "will spend this year [1905] some seventy-five millions of dollars in the purchase of patent medicines. In consideration of this sum it will swallow huge quantities of alcohol, an appalling amount of opiates and narcotics, a wide assortment of varied drugs ranging from powerful and dangerous heart depressants to insidious liver stimulants; and, far in excess of all other ingredients, undiluted fraud."

In his articles in Collier's, Adams took a shotgun approach: he attacked patent medicine makers and their accomplices in the press who refused to investigate the truth of the advertisements they were printing. He attacked quacks and he revealed how nostrum makers blithely traded mailing lists of people who sent in personal letters of medical inquiry.

Adams discussed preparations such as "Kopp's Baby Friend," which was made of sweetened water and morphine, and was advertised as the perfect way to calm babies down. It undoubtedly did.

A competitor was Dr. Winslow's Soothing Syrup--"makes 'em lay like the dead 'til mornin'," says one testimonial cited by Adams.

Adams could be subtle: "I don't want to overrate Dr. Curry in his own department of human activity, but he seems to me on the whole, one of the most eminent all-around liars I have encountered anywhere in Quackdom. According to his own statements Dr. Curry has discovered not only the germ of cancer, but also a sure cure for it...the fact is, of course, that Dr. Curry can not cure cancer, and he knows that he can not."

Kampmeier traces this history of patent medicines in the U.S. to sources such as herbal medications popular with American Indians, and the folk remedies brought from Europe by recent immigrants.

There were essentially no laws prohibiting the mixing up of almost any ingredients, making any claim for what the potion would cure, and buying advertising by the yard to bellow those claims.

The U.S. Patent Office would only grant patents to "new and useful" inventions; for this reason, few patent medicines were actually patented.

Sure, I'm a doctor, here's my shingle

The self-medicators weren't the only users--a number of licensed physicians prescribed the spurious potions. And, while Kampmeier says that most medical school graduates knew the claims were phony, medical licensing laws in many states allowed a substantial number of non-graduates to practice medicine.

For example, Tennessee first required licensed physicians to graduate from medical school in the 1890s, but attached a grandfather clause to the law, allowing anyone currently practicing medicine, graduate or not, to continue. The 1950s were the first decade in the history of the state in which every licensed, practicing physician was a graduate of a medical school.

"It was these [non-graduate] doctors who prescribed these things," he says.

When asked if he knew the nostrums he was selling across the drugstore counter were worthless, Kampmeier smiles gently.

"You've got to put this in perspective," he says, "This was 70 years ago."