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Pitches of snake-oil salesmen have timeless appeal to gullible.

Byline: Albert B. SOUTHWICK


Medical flimflammery has been around ever since the first witch doctor howled at the moon. The ingenuity of salesmen for nostrums is matched by the gullibility of those yearning for cures for whatever ails them.

I thought of this the other day when I came across an issue of the Columbian Centinel, published in Boston on Nov. 29, 1806. There, on the back page, was a full column advertisement of Richard Lee & Sons, who must have been the Merck Pharmaceuticals of that era. It goes as follows:

Lee's Anti-bilious pills: excellently adapted to carry off superfluous bile and prevent its morbid excretions - to restore and amend the appetite - produce a free perspiration, and thereby prevent colds ... celebrated for removing habitual costiveness - sickness of the stomach and severe headaches - and ought to be taken by all persons on a change of climate . . .

Lee's elixir: a sovereign remedy for colds, obstinate coughs, catarrhs, asthma, and approaching consumptions . . .

Lee's grand restorative: an invaluable medicine for the speedy relief and permanent cure of the various complaints that arise from dissipated pleasure ... the diseases peculiar to females at a certain period of life, bad lyings-in, & . . .

Lee's worm-destroying lozenges: which have within seven years past, cured upward of one hundred thousand persons, of both sexes, of every age and of every situation, of various dangerous complaints, arising from worms and from obstructions or foulness in the stomach or bowels.

Lee's genuine essence and extract of mustard: a safe and effectual remedy for acute and chronic rheumatism, gout, palsy, lumbago, numbness, white swellings, chilblains, sprains, bruises, pains in the face and neck, etc.

Lee's infallible ague and fever drops: for the care of agues and intermittent fevers . . .

Lee's sovereign ointment for the itch: an infallible remedy at one application, and may be used with the most perfect safety by pregnant women, or on infants a week old, not containing a particle of mercury or any dangerous ingredient . . .

Lee's corn plaster: an infallible remedy for removing corns, root and branch, without giving pain.

The Indian vegetable specific: for the care of venereal complaints.

Also available were Tooth-Ache Drops, Eye Water, Damask Lip Salve, Anodyne Elixir (for the cure of every kind of headache), Restorative Powder for the Teeth and Gums and, finally, Genuine Persian Lotion ("unparalleled efficacy in preventing and removing blemishes of every kind, particularly freckles, pimples, inflammatory redness, scurfs, tetters, ring-worms, sunburns, prickly heat, premature wrinkles, etc.")

OK, that was 1806. Let's fast forward a hundred years and see how things were in 1906. Not that much different, it seems, judging by the ads in The Evening Gazette. Richard Lee and Sons were long gone, but plenty of other nostrums were available.

For example: Dr. True's Elixir, for treating "furred tongue, variable appetite, disturbed sleep, malaria, irritability, poor complexion, costiveness."

Or Dr. Miles' Anti-Pain Pills, advertised as "A remarkable remedy for the relief of headaches, nervousness, dizziness, or car sickness, etc. Two tablets never fail to stop the most severe headache."

Dr. Williams' Pink Pills for Pale People cured anemia by manufacturing new blood, a marvelous treatment for "any pale, weak, ailing, bloodless person."

And there was Castoria, reputed to cure diarrhea and "wind colic" and relieve "teething troubles, constipation and flatulency ..."

But the real miracle drug of the early 1900s was Peruna, often spelled Pe-ru-na in the ads. Peruna eliminated "catarrh of the bowels" and produced some remarkable testimonials. One woman said that it had done wonders for her typhoid fever. A Swedish minister reported that his "obstinate, chronic diarrhea" was completely cured after three years of suffering. A "prominent attorney" endorsed Peruna for "its strengthening and invigorating qualities." A Miss Irene Smith wrote that "Peruna has cured me of catarrh of the head and stomach, and nervous debility ..."

Perhaps the most believable medication was that recommended by Mr. Silas Duncan, 88, who found that three spoonfuls a day of Duffy's Pure Malt Whiskey had cured his chronic dysentery and left him feeling chipper. He said that it "builds up the nerve tissues, gives power to the brain and strength and elasticity to the muscles ..."

That's how things went in 1906. And what about 2008? As I listen to the endless ads for weight loss, smooth skin, new hair, comfortable bowels and eternal youth, I fear that the gullibility factor is still in play. And the row on row of pills on drugstore shelves reveal only too clearly the eternal human wish to be rid of aches, pains, excess weight and wrinkles. When it comes to human nature, some things don't change.

Albert B. Southwick's column appears regularly in the Telegram & Gazette.
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Title Annotation:COMMENTARY
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Feb 7, 2008
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