Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Patent Medicine -- Regency universal remedies

During the Regency era medical treatment, as we know it, was in its infancy. Establishments like the Medical Society of London and the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh were beginning to disseminate medical information and train doctors, but it would be later in the 19th century before significant medical strides were made. Until then the care of those requiring medical aid was in the hands of the hard-to-find trained physicians and the under-educated barber-surgeons. Those who did not have access to these practitioners relied upon apothecaries and wise-women educated in herbal lore and experiential healing.
The Book of English Trades: And Library of the Useful Arts by John Souter
The dearth of knowledge in the field of medicine led to the development of a huge quantity of 'patent' medicines, that is, herbal and alcoholic concoctions whose efficacy had no factual basis. Of course, patent medicines still thrive today, but at least we have agencies overseeing their ingredients, their claims, and their use.

During the Regency, there was no oversight. Patent medicines and the shops in which they were sold flourished.

Stamford Mercury - Friday 16 September 1803
Bell's Monthly Compendium of Advertisements for August 1807
Bristol Mirror - Saturday 28 April 1810
Manchester Mercury - Tuesday 09 September 1800
Birmingham Chronicle - Thursday 02 December 1819
Likely there were among the patent medicines some innocuous remedies that provided relief for some conditions. But too often they were adulterated, and worse, they were reliant on additives like alcohol, opium, and cocaine. These concoctions could have deadly results. This tragedy (below) occurred as a result of the use of an 'imitation' of a well-known cure-all "Godfrey's Cordial".
Aris's Birmingham Gazette - Monday 22 February 1808
It was common knowledge that patent medicines were dubious science. Even the cartoonists lampooned them:
T. Rowlandson and G. Woodward, 1801 (Credit Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images)
But the ultimate in chicanery came from one Dr. Sibly. The claims for his product were numerous, and culminated in an assertion that it could reanimate a person on the verge of death.
Chester Chronicle - Friday 06 November 1818
Leeds Mercury - Saturday 26 October 1816
 The sheer quantity of advertisements for patent medicines in publications of the Regency era indicates their availability, and their popularity. I just hope they helped more people than they injured.

'Til next time,