Samuel Hopkins Adams, Articles on the Nostrum Evil and Quackery

As part of related research into consumer protection, I recently scanned in a copy of Samuel Hopkins Adams' seminal articles on the patent medicine industry. These articles, which appeared in Collier's magazine starting in 1905, helped build the record for the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act, and for amendments to that law in 1912.

There are fourteen articles in the series and in them you will see how little has changed in the world of quackery. Adams focused much of his attention on the relationship between publishers and quacks, a problem that exists to this day (publishers are one of the most reliable opponents of consumer protection laws). Here, he points out the idea that publishers will lose their contracts with patent medicine quacks if "hostile legislation" is passed.

In this first article, Denialism readers will recognize two key strategies used by today's nutritional supplement sellers: claims of universalism/universal cures, and the idea that doctors are suppressing remedies in order to protect their professional racket. Enjoy. Uncorrected OCR follows.










This is the introductory article to a series which will contain a full explanation and expire of patent-medicine methods, and the harm done to the public by this industry, founded mainly on fraud and poison.  Results of the publicity given to these methods can already be seen in the steps recently taken by the National Government, some State Governments and a few of the more reputable newspapers.  The object of the series is to make the situation so familiar and thoroughly understood that there will be a speedy end to the worst aspect of the evil.

Gullible .America will spend this year 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 simulauts; and, far in excess of all other ingredients, undiluted fraud. For fraud exploited by the skillfulest of advertising bunco men, is the basis of the trade. Should the newspapers, the magazines and the medical journal refuse their pages to this class of advertisements, the patent medicine business in five years would be as scandalously historic as the South Sea Bubble, and the nation would be richer not only in lives and money, but in drunkards and drug.fiends saved.
"Don't make the mistake of lumping all proprietary medicines in one
indiscriminate denunciation," came warning from all sides when this series
was announced. But the honest attempt to separate the sheep from the
goats develops a lamentable lack of qualified candidates for the sheepfold.
External remedies there may be which are at once honest in their claims
and effective for their purposes; they are not to be found among the
mu~h-advertised ointments or applications which :fill the public prints.
~ut!cura may be a useful preparation, but in extravagance of advertising
1t nvala the most clamorous cure-all. Pond's Extract, one would naturally
suppose, could afford to restrict itself to decent methods, but in the recent
ep~demic scare in New York it traded on the public alarm by putting forth
"~1aplay:• advertisements headed, in heavy black type, "Meningitis," a
d1aease In which witch-hazel is about as effective as molasses. ~his is
fairly comparable to Peruna's gh9ulish exploitation, for profit, of the yellow.
fever. scourge in New Orleans,· aided by various southern newspapers of
tan~mg, which published as news an "interview" with Dr. Hartman,
president of the Peruna Company.

prominent Chicago newspaper and spread before its advertising manager a full-page advertisement, with blank spaces in the center. "We want some good, strong testimonials to fill out with," he said. "You can get all of those you want, can't you Y" asked the newspaper
manager. "Can youf" returned the other. "Show me four or five strong ones from
local politicians and you get the ad."
Fake Testimonials That day reporters were assigned to secure testimonials with photo.graphs which subsequently appeared in the full-page advertisement as

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A CONTRACT €0NTA·I-NING THE RED CI:.AUSE 'l'he "Red Clause" is shown in heavy type, beginning with the words "It Is mutually agreed . • ." The Gazette bus recently decided to exclude all
patent-medicine advertising from its columns.
promised. As for the men who permitted the use of their names for this purpose, several of them afterward admitted that they had never tasted the "Compound," but that they were willing to sign the testimonials for the joy of appearing in print as "prominent citizens." Another Chicago news.

paper compelled its political editor to tout for fake indorsements of n nostrum. A man with an inside knowledge of the patent-medicine business made some investigations into this phase of the matter, and he declares that such procurement of testimonials became so established as to have the force of a system, only two Chicago papers being free from it. To·day, he adds, a similar "deal" could be made with half a dozen of that city's dailies. It is disheartening to note that in the case of one important and high·class daily, the Pittsburg Gazette, a trial rejection of all patent. medicine advertising received absolutely no support or encouragement from the public; so the paper reverted to its old policy.
One might expect from the medical press freedom from such influences. The control is as complete, though exercised by a class of nostrums some· what differently exploited, but essentially the same. Only "ethical" prepa.rations are permitted in the representative medical press, that is, articles not advertised in the lay press. Yet this distinction is not strictly adhered to. "Syrup of Figs," for instance, which makes widespread pretense in the dailies to be an extract of the fig, advertises in the medical journals for what it is, a preparation of senna. Antikamnia, an "ethical" proprietary compound, for a long time exploited itself to the profession by a campaign of ridiculous extravagance, and is to·day by the extent of its reckless use on the part of ignorant laymen a public menace. Recently an artie!~ announcing a startling new drug discovery and signed by a physician was offered to a standard medical journal, which declined it on learning thnt the drug was a proprietary preparation. The contribution was returned to the editor with an offer of payment at advertising rates if it were printed as editorial reading matter, only to be reject~d on the new basis. Subse.quently it appeared simultaneously in more than twenty medical publica.tions as rending matter. There are to-day very few medical publica.tions which do not carry advertisements conceived in the same spirit and making much the snme exhaustive claims ns the ordinary quack "ads" of the daily press, and still fewer that are free from promises to "cure" diseases which are incurable by any medicine. Thus the medical press is as strongly enmeshed by the "ethical" druggers as the lay press is by Paine, "Dr." Kilmer, Lydia Pinkham, Dr. Hartman, "Hall" of the "red clause," and the rest of the edifying band of life-savers, leaving no agency to refute the megaphone exploitation of the fraud. What opposition there is would naturally arise in the medical profession, but this is discounted by the proprietary interests.
The Doctors Are Investigating
"You attack us because we cure your patients," is their charge. They assume always that the public has no grievance against them, or rather, they calmly ignore the public in the matter. In his address at the last convention of the Proprietary Association, the retiring president, W. A. of Piso's Consumption Cure, turning his guns on the medical profession, delivered this astonishing sentiment:
"No argument favoring the publication of our formulas was ever uttered which does not apply with equal force to your prescriptions. It is in you to want to know these formulas, for they are good. But you must not ask us to reveal these valuable secrets, to do what you would not do yourselves. The public and our law-makers do not want your secrets nor ours, and it would be a damage to them to ha1Je them."
The physicians seem to have awakened, somewhat tardily, indeed, to counter-attack. The American Medical Association has organized a Coun.cil on Pharmacy and Chemistry to investigate and pass on the "ethi~l" preparations advertised to physicians, with a view to listing those wb1ch
are founrl to     be reputable and useful TJ1at tl · · d d
-. · us Is regar e as a directIt t)
assau on 1e propnetary mterests is suggested b tJ t ts
the verge of frenzy in some cases, emanatincr fro~ t~eo;ro es ' e oq~ent to ~an~facturers control. . Alre~dy the council has issued s:ru~r~:~:f~~~~c;r::~ 1ep01 ts on products of Imposmgly scientific nomenclature. and rno y t
follow.     ' re are o
What One Druggist Is Doing
Largely f~r trade reason~ a few druggists have been fightin the nos.trums, but without any considerable effect Indeed •t · · ~
tb t 1 d . · , I IS surpnsmg to see
~ peop e are ~o eep!y Impressed with the advertising claims put forth duly as to be Impervious to warnings even from -t A t
· 1     exper B. cu -ratet th E
s ore, e cononuca Drug Company of Chicago st rt d ·
and displayed a sign in the winuow readincr · ' a e on a campaign
o ·
What is
/<'01· you embarrass us, as our honest ans1cer must be that
1( you mean     to as7e at what price we sell it that is an entirely different proposition. '
When sick, consult a !J.OOd physician. It is the onl ro er course. A:zd pou ~ll find it cheaper in the enJ fha! self-medtcatton 1vtth worthless "patent'' nostrums.

This was followed up by th , . f .
prominent nostrums that they ~::1esme: 8 In ormmg all applicants for the
was unable to get rid of ite wa: I~g m~!l~Y· Yet, with all this that trums comprise one· third f . s . pa en .-me Icme trade, and to-day nos.thirds of that of the averaoge~:~enlltnte busmess. They comprise about two.
. 1 ti . a s ore.
I.egJs a on IS the most b · -d .
Jlt'Deral public or the aw k o ~Ious/~~e .Y' pen~ID~ the e~lightenment of the lion proceeds slow! a enmg o . 1e JOUrnalistic conscience. But practical termsya:n~2~~vo6oso~~amtst ~p:osition, which may be measured e last report of the Pro ;ie ' a s.a .e ~n the other side. I note in statement that "th P h tal!' AssoCiations annual meeting the signifi.Most of the I . ~ t•eaviest expenses were incurred in legislative eg~s a Ion must be done by states, and we have seen
in the case of the Hall Catarrh cure contract how readily this may be con· trolled. .
Two government agencies, at least, lend themselves to the purposes of the patent-medicine makers. The Patent Office issues to them trade-mark registration (generally speaking, the convenient term "patent medicine" is a misnomer, as very few are patented) without inquiry into the nature of the article thus safeguarded against imitation. The Post-Office Depart· ment permits them the use of the mails. Except one particular line, the disgraceful "Weak Manhood" remedies, where excellent work has been done in throwing them out of the mails for fraud, the department bas done nothing in the matter of patent remedies, and has no present intention of doing anything; yet I believe that such action, powerful as would be the opposition developed, would be upheld by the courts on the same grounds that sustained the Post Office's position in the recent case of "Robusto," namely:
That the advertising and circular statements circulated through the mails were materially and substantially false, with the result of cheating and defrauding those into whose hands the statements come;
That, while the remedies did possess medicinal properties, these were not such as to carry out the cures promised;
That the advertiser knew he was deceiving;
That in the sale and distribution of his medicines .the complainant made no inquiry into the specific character of the disease in any individual case, but supplied the same remedies and prescribed the same mode of treatment to all alike.
Should the department apply these principles to the patent-medicine field generally, a number of conspicuous nostrums would cease to be patrons of Uncle Sam's mail service.
Some states have made a good start in the matter of legislation, among them Michigan, which does not, however, enforce its recent strong law. Massachusetts, which has done more, through the admirable work of its State Board of Health, than any other agency to educate the public on the patent-medicine question, is unable to get a law restricting this trade. In New Hampshire, too, the proprietary interests have proven too strong, and the Mallonee bill was destroyed by the almost united opposition of a "red-clause" press. North Dakota proved more independent. .After Jan. I, 1906, all medicines sold in that state, except on physician's prescriptions, which contain chloral, ergot, morphin, opium, cocain, bromin, iodin or any _ of their compounds or derivatives, or more than 5 per cent. of alcohol, .must so state on the label. When this bill became a law, the Proprietary Association of .America proceeded to blight the state by resolving that its members should offer no goods for sale there.
Boards of health in various parts of the country are doing valuable edu·
cational work, the North Dakota board having led in the legislation. The
Massachusetts, Connecticut and North Carolina boards have been active.
The New York State board has kept its hands off patent medicines, but the
Board of Pharmacy has made a cautious but promising beginning by
compelling all makers of powders containing cocain to put a poison label
on their goods; and it proposes to extend this ruling gradually to other
dangerous compositions.
Health Boards and .Analyses
It is somewhat surprising to find the Health Department of New York
City, in many respects the foremost in the country, making no use of care
fully and rather expensively acquired knowledge which would serve to pr11·

teet the public. More than two years ago analyses were made by the chemists of the department which showed dangerous quantities of cocain in a number of catarrh powders. These analyses have never been printed. Even the general nature of the information has been withheld. Should any citizen of New York going to the Health Department, have asked: "My wife is taking Birney's Catarrh Powder; is it true that it's a bad fhing?" the officials, with the knowledge at hand that the drug in question is a maker of cocain fiends, would have blandly emulated the Sphinx. Outside criticism of an overworked, undermanned and generally efficient department is liable to error through ignorance of the problems involved in its admin.istration; yet one cannot but believe that some form of warning against what is wisely admittedly a public menace would have been a wiser form of procedure than that which has heretofore been discovered by the formula, "policy of the department."
Policies ·change and broaden under pressure of conditions. The Health Commissioner is now formulating a plan which, with the work of the chem.ists as a basis, shall check the trade in public poisons more or less con.cealed behind proprietary names. .
It is impossible, even in a series of articles, to attempt more than an exemplary treatment of the patent-medicine frauds. The most degraded and degrading, the "lost vitality" and "blood disease" cures, reeking of terroriza.tion and blackmail, cannot from their very nature be treated of in a lay journal. Many dangerous and health-destroying compounds will escape through sheer inconspicuousness. I can touch on only a few of those which may be regarded as typical: the alcohol stimulators, as represented by J:'eruna, Paine's Celery Compound and Duffy's Pure Malt Whiskey ( adver.tised as an exclusively medical preparation) ; the catarrh powders, which breed cocain slaves, and the opium-containing soothing syrups which stunt or kill helpless infants; the consumption cures, perhaps the most devilish of all, in that they destroy hope where hope is struggling against bitter odds for existence; the headache powders, which enslave so insidiously that the victim is ignorant of his own fate; the comparatively harmless fake as typified by that marvelous product of advertising effrontery, Liquozone; and, finally, the system of exploitation and testimonials on which the whole vast system of bunco rests, as on a flimsy but cunningly constructed foundation.


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If you read Last Call you will find that Lydia Pinkhams tonic for women was a disguised way of getting drunk because pre-prohibition going to a saloon was not acceptable behavior for proper women. In addition many tonics of the time were mostly alcohol because it die make you feel better for a bit, the better to get you to come back for more.
Interestingly if you read Titan you find that John D. Rockefellers father was in the tonic business, and it is ironic that John D's money made that business far more difficult. (thru the Rockefeller foundation). Of course back then booze was sort of a universal cure as it would cure the pain for a little while. Which may be why the religious right (and anti foreign immigrant type) in 1917 wanted prohibition so much. Better to be a true Calvinist and suffer.

Lyle, you are right on--one of the early articles in this series discusses how much alcohol is in these "cures" stay tuned :)

Re. "...the relationship between publishers and quacks...":

"Free speech fundamentalism" remains with us to this day, to the extent of imbuing "speech" with quasi-animistic qualities of personhood, whereby even the most egregious sorts of fraud are defended as having an inherent almost person-like right to exist and propagate.

One of the worst current examples is the case of the woman who signed a fraudulent contract to act in the video that was released as "Innocence of Muslims," where the video is now being defended as "free speech" despite having been produced by conning this individual into appearing in it (more details on request) at the expense of her entire future career and ongoing death threats against her.

Another, and highly pertinent to quackery, is the recent court ruling barring legislation that had required companies to label products that contained "conflict minerals" produced in the Congo under conditions of slave labor: the court held that any such legislation impeded the "free speech" rights of the company to promote its products as it saw fit (will cigarette pack warning labels come next?).

From this precedent, companies could seek to challenge any requirement to label product ingredients. If you think I'm exaggerating, just read the briefs claiming "freedom of religion" for corporations (Hobby Lobby et. al.): the entire premise is so outrageous that if it had been submitted in a film script, it would have been laughed out of Hollywood.

The link between "corporate religion" and "corporate speech" is the expansion of corporate personhood at the expense of long-established principles of regulation. What's good for the religious goose, is also good for the fraudulent gander, and in the end both of them are quackers.

I've reluctantly come to the conclusion that "free speech" has been stretched to the point of absurdity, and it's time to seriously consider rolling back some of its more outrageous contortions. How this might be done without opening up further cans of worms, I have no idea, but at least it would be worthwhile considering the possibility.

It's cool to see the original printed form of this very important article in the history of quackery!

FWIW there is also another online readable copy of this (and it's follow ups) at the Museum of Quackery site here. Might save you some time if you are going through the OCR to correct it.

By Tim Farley (not verified) on 17 Apr 2014 #permalink