In a 1915 editorial, journalist Samuel Hopkins Adams wrote, “Advertising successfully sells almost everything within the range of human needs. There is one thing, however, which it cannot sell: health” (Adams, 1915). Although Adams established himself as one of the leading voices of medical fraud in the early 20th century, he was mistaken; cunning businessmen could—and did—find success in selling a number of “miraculous” cures and remedies for everything from a minor headache to tuberculosis. Adams was not the first whistleblower of fraudulent medicine; in 1858, Massachusetts physician Dr. Dan King published Quackery Unmasked, a tome that criticized the country’s obsession with snake oil salesmen and unlicensed healers. It would take more than 50 years, however, for the government to start enacting meaningful pharmaceutical reforms.
The archived articles at the Florida and Puerto Rico Digital Newspaper Project offer unique insight into the world of “patent medicines:” unlicensed and unregulated products sold as over-the-counter medicine, regardless of their effectiveness. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, most local newspapers contained dozens of advertisements for these cure-all tonics, potions, and pills. Marketing, rather than science, was the key to a successful pharmaceutical business. Nostrum advertisements sought to convince the public not only to believe they were sick, but also to trick them into believing their fake treatments worked. At the local level, Arcadia’s Ed Greene was a master of marketing. From 1905 to 1908, The Champion and The De Soto County News frequently featured medical ads with salacious fear-mongering headlines. “Dancing Proves Fatal” warns readers that partygoers attending dances in the winter months are susceptible to pneumonia and consumption—two potentially fatal conditions in the early 1900s. However, if the afflicted took a syrup called Foley’s Honey and Tar at the first sign of distress, they had nothing to fear (The Champion, 1908). Greene, a local druggist who went by the title “Dr.” peddled cures for everything from a common cough to deadly epidemics. It was common for drugstores to market miracle cures during this period; in fact, advertisements for Greene’s local rival, druggist Harry Cross, often appear alongside his own in the Arcadia papers. While Cross’s endorsements also promise swift and lasting relief for a variety of afflictions, when published side by side, it is clear that Greene certainly had a unique taste for sensationalism. Just one edition of The De Soto County News from 1905, featured Greene’s anxiety-inducing advertisements with startling headlines like “Incredible brutality,” “Startling Mortality,” “Grave Trouble Forseen,” “Agonizing Burns,” and “Poisons in Food” (De Soto County, Sept. 1905). These vague yet ominous titles draw readers into what usually consists of a first-hand account of a consumer who has been cured or escaped an otherwise grim fate thanks to the products sold by Dr. Greene. “Saved His Life” claims one headline, continuing with the testimony, “I was under the treatment of two doctors, and they told me one of my lungs was entirely gone and, the other badly affected” (De Soto County, Oct. 1905). Surely, a man in such harrowing shape would be at death’s door, but thankfully, just two bottles of Ballard’s Snow Liniment cured him outright!
While such claims may seem outrageous and obviously fraudulent, the product’s creator, James F. Ballard acquired a considerable fortune through his patent medicine business. By the turn of the century, the proprietary medicine industry brought in over $70 million annually (Boyle, 2013). At a time where licensed physicians and scientists were engineering genuine medical advances, the continued use and popularity of these nostrums concerned the medical community. Early American physicians believed that patenting pharmaceuticals prioritized profit over medicine and was an ethical violation of their commitment to healing. The medical community thought that secret formulas and proprietary knowledge interfered with testing the efficacy of certain compounds and impeded further research. It was also concerned that the public could be duped into purchasing fraudulent or even dangerous goods (Gabriel, 2016).
The Peruna scandal of the early 1900s illustrates the dangerous potential of patent medicines. Marketed as a cure for Catarrh (mucus buildup), the drug Pe-Ru-Na claimed to cure all sorts of bodily troubles including stomach pains, coughs, and headaches. Dr. Samuel Hartman, the drug’s creator, launched a wildly successful advertising campaign that claimed Catarrh caused half of all human illness. Puerto Rican papers at the turn of the century were especially rife with Pe-Ru-Na marketing. Hartman’s company ran extensive half-page advertisements in La Correspondencia de Puerto Rico (San Juan) and La Democracia (Ponce). They featured images of smiling, well-dressed white women alongside testimonies from purported thank-you letters to Dr. Hartman. In one excerpt, Miss Loretta Wall from St. Paul explains that she was suffering terribly from stomachaches until she drank three bottles of Peruna. She instantly recuperated and now owes her health to the drug. Another, Mrs. Davis from Nashville, Tennessee had tried numerous remedies over twenty years and had lost all hope until she found Peruna. Now she looks and feels years younger (La democracia, 1907).
Startled by the robust endorsements of Peruna by influential businessmen, socialites, and politicians, concerned citizens investigated deeper into the remedy’s supposed cures. The aforementioned journalist Samuel Hopkins Adams made a name for himself through investigating patent medicines. In 1905, he exposed the false claims of drug manufacturers in an eleven-part series titled, “The Great American Fraud.” Adams’s exposé is often credited with the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. Pe-Ru-Na’s fraudulent claims were a central part of Adam’s investigation. He revealed that the drug was 28% alcohol, providing a stimulating effect and temporarily numbing pain, which led the consumer to believe they had benefitted from the tonic. Physicians reported that a number of their patients developed alcohol addictions after trying to cure their ailments with these homeopathic bitters (Adams, 1905).
A guide to alcohol levels in medicines and liquors from Adam’s exposé
Another key player in exposing medical fraud was the American Medical Association (AMA). Even in the nineteenth century, medical practice was unorganized and loosely regulated; there were few restrictions on who could practice medicine and what formal education was required. In the absence of federal oversight, the privately run AMA established itself as a leading voice in the professionalization and regulation of healthcare. Disdainful of the popularity and fraudulent claims of patent medicines, the AMA launched a Propaganda for Reform department. In 1905, it also established a Council on Pharmacy and Chemistry, an in-house lab that analyzed the contents of patent medicines. The department head, Arthur J. Cramp, regularly contributed articles to the Journal of the American Medical Association warning of the dangers of patent medicines. His weekly column investigated miraculous medical claims and exposed the ingredients and lies of popular nostrums. Cramp was largely concerned with the social effects of marketing medicine directly to consumers. Led on by false advertising, customers might incorrectly self-diagnose an illness, causing more harm to themselves through quack remedies. Contrarily, they might be convinced the nostrum had “cured” an ailment that would have remedied itself in due time, regardless of treatment. Deeply devoted to public health, Cramp toured the country giving free educational lectures to schools, professional groups, and civic organizations about the dangers of quack medicine (Boyle, 2013). He was a pioneer in drug regulation and contributed greatly to the professionalization of American medicine. The work done by Adams, Cramp, and other discerning citizens paved the way for healthier practices in medicine.
Citations and Additional Sources
Adams, Samuel Hopkins. “If It’s Medical, It’s a Swindle” New York Tribune. (New York, NY), 06 Jan. 1915. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030214/1915-01-06/ed-1/seq-1/>
_______. The Great American Fraud: A Series of Articles on the Patent Medicine Evil, Also, the Patent Medicine Conspiracy against the Freedom of the Press (New York: P.F. Collier, 1905).
Boyle, Eric W. Quack Medicine: A History of Combating Health Fraud in Twentieth-century America (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2013). xvii
The Champion. (Arcadia, Fla.), 02 Jan. 1908. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn95047227/1908-01-02/ed-1/seq-2/
La democracia. (Ponce, P.R.), 04 May 1907. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn90070270/1907-05-04/ed-1/seq-4/>
The De Soto County News. (Arcadia, Fla.), 15 Sept. 1905. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn95026908/1905-09-15/ed-1/seq-16/
The De Soto County News. (Arcadia, Fla.), 20 Oct. 1905. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn95026908/1905-10-20/ed-1/seq-8/
Gabriel, Joseph M. “Pharmaceutical Patenting and the Transformation of American Medical Ethics.” The British Journal for the History of Science 49, no. 4 (December 2016): 577-600.