You think the drugs advertised on TV, the ones with the possible side effects of blindness, cancer or death, are bad? Read the articles and ads for medical cures in a newspaper from the late nineteenth century and you’ll be convinced that when it comes to medicine, we live in a golden age.
So why am I reading newspapers from another era when I have a recycling bin of unread papers only a few days old? Because it’s a homework assignment for my class on genealogy and historical research, a way of answering questions about the conditions under which my grandparents and great-grandparents lived. I chose the Kansas City Journal from the year 1897 for my research. After reading ten consecutive issues, I was hooked on reports of the best treatments for every imaginable medical condition. These make the National Enquirer read like a legitimate science journal.
Below are some of the more outrageous examples.
Mrs. Lydia Pinkham was a popular purveyor of home remedies for “female complaints.” In February 1897, she warned mothers of their duties to daughters during menstruation. She proclaimed that “disturbance of the menstrual function poisons the blood,” and that “suppression develops latent inherited tendencies to scrofula or consumption.” (Both these diseases are a kind of tuberculosis, which was only cured with the discovery of antibiotics in the 1940’s. But Mrs. Pinkham’s sense of drama was surely a sales booster.) She added that the risks of ignoring certain symptoms — a flush in the cheeks, pains in the stomach after eating — were profound. “If you do, you will be following your daughter to the grave, for she will die! This is the gospel truth — that she is developing consumption of the bowels!”
Ads describing treatments for men’s conditions were as common as those for women. Dr. H.J. Whittier’s specialty was the curing of “VARICOCELE” (Enlarged vein of Scrotum) [which] often causes Nervous Debility, Impotency, Lack of Development, Quickness, Pain in the Back, and many other symptoms. Syphilis and other blood diseases, causing sore throat, falling hair, pain in bones, etc, etc, permanently cured without mercury.” While it’s unlikely that Dr. Whittier’s remedies cured this list of ailments, unlike many physicians of his era, he had the good sense to avoid adding mercury.
Herbalists and doctors weren’t the only experts in treating medical conditions. The Connecticut state chemist did an analysis of whiskeys, determined that Duffy’s brand was the most pure, and recommended it to prevent “throat and lung troubles,” which he said were the cause of more than two-thirds of all deaths in the previous six months.
Prescribing tonics, liver pills and other concoctions seemed innocent compared to the ultimate cure of Dr. Pilcher, former superintendent of the Winfield Imbecile asylum, who gained notoriety testing it on inmates there for the sake of “God and humanity” before making it available to the general public.
Topeka Kas., Feb 22 (Special) “Rev. William Goodrich (at least the name he is going under here) a Baptist minister in a little town in Lyon county not far from Emporia, was unsexed in this city tonight. The operation was performed by Dr. Pilcher…”
The reverend …says that “he decided that he could do better work for God and humanity in his chosen field if ‘Pilchered’…”
“The operation was performed in the presence of press representatives and about 100 spectators…” (who had to have cringed throughout.)
As a footnote, none of the cures above could be as extreme as being “Pilchered,” unless one takes this one into account.
“A little maiden in Michigan was cured of inflammation of the bowels by the application of the warm and bleeding pelts of twenty-nine cats.”
Before we get too smug, I guess we should ask what twenty-second century historians will be saying about medicine in 2015.