Old apothecary jars, from as far back as the 1880s, fill a back room at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. Although the museum has an inventory of these patent medicines and old newspaper ads showing the costs of the various items, no one knew what the jars actually contained. Concerned that they might be preserving dangerous substances, museum staff approached Mark Benvenuto, PhD, a chemist at nearby University of Detroit Mercy, to perform the pharmacologic equivalent of a crime scene investigation.

Dr. Benvenuto, a professor and the chair of the university’s Chemistry and Biochemistry Department, was curious enough to recruit a team of undergraduates to provide chemical analysis of the ingredients in the old patent medicines. For the unfunded research project, he asked the Henry Ford Museum to choose 25 items it would most want analyzed. Dr. Benvenuto suspects product names were major criteria: Selections included Dr. J.J. Gallop’s Vegetable Family Pills, Parson’s Purgative Pills and Dr. F. G. Johnson’s French Female Pills.

What’s in a Patent Medicine?

The contents of the museum’s jars “were often unlisted so competitors wouldn’t steal them,” Dr. Benvenuto learned. Some of the ingredients his team found, including an assortment of minerals, are considered helpful today. Diamond Dinner Pills, for instance, were a benign combination of iron, potassium, copper, zinc and calcium. Small amounts of silver often were included, perhaps because colloidal silver was believed to help digestion.

“If you crank the clock back 120 years, mercury was often used to treat diseases, including syphilis. It would almost kill you, but it actually did kill the spirochete bacteria,” Dr. Benvenuto said. “If you took a controlled mercury dose, it would probably make you vomit, which may have been the way Parson’s Purgative Pills worked.” He attributes the significant amounts of iron in Dr. F. G. Johnson’s French Female Pills to “an old wives’ tale that said you need more iron when you’re pregnant.”

The high mercury and lead content surprised fourth-year mechanical engineering student Andrew Diefenbach, who presented the results of the investigation at the recent annual meeting of the American Chemical Society, in New Orleans. “I knew lots of these [elements] had been in medicine, but didn’t realize how much had been used,” he said. “Lead compounds made things taste sweet—the Romans used it to sweeten food and wine.”

Despite often having names that evoked the medical profession—such as Dr. Sawen’s Magic Nervine Pills, Dr. Comfort’s Candy-Covered Cathartic Compills and Dr. Tutt’s Liver Pills—patent medicines were not necessarily created by doctors. They sometimes made outlandish claims (like Rhodes’ Fever & Ague Cure or Antidote to Malaria) and misled people about their contents.
Whoever produced them, physicians or not, had at least the elementary equipment to make a capsule, Dr. Benvenuto discovered. “They look professional, with gaudy labels we wouldn’t use anymore. But they don’t look like, say, homemade rock candy, either.”

Modern-Day Detective Techniques
To figure out the amount of each toxic compound in the patent medicines, “we took each sample and bombarded it with x-rays. Different ingredients give off a different radiation, and then you can try to figure out the approximate percentage of each,” Dr. Benvenuto explained. “We ran [tests looking for] 1,000 parts per million of lead, and checked peak intensity. Mercury, arsenic and lead content all seemed to be in that range. Intriguingly, we found the same percentages of calcium and iron.”

The next phase of their research will look at inactive or inert ingredients. “We now think of what these people were doing as primitive,” Dr. Benvenuto said. “The inactive ingredients were probably inert, like talc or sugar—things that are not harmful. The cellulose fillings are still used today, and so is titanium dioxide, the whitener in gum. You don’t need that in your body, though.” Because the inert materials made a pill manageable for holding in one’s fingers, he suspects that “even 120 years ago, people didn’t want a giant capsule.”

Phase 2 of the research project will use nuclear magnetic resonance imaging. “We’ll dissolve a [product] sample in a solvent, then spin it at 24 times per minute. It’s kind of a CSI effect,” said Dr. Benvenuto, referring to the popular TV series that uses forensic science to solve crimes. Organic ingredients such as cocaine don’t show up on x-rays, but may be detectable in phase 2. However, “after 100 years, codeine, laudanum, cocaine and opium would break down, so we may not find them,” Dr. Benvenuto conceded.

A Viagra Precursor?
Kenneth L. Audus, PhD, dean of the University of Kansas School of Pharmacy, in Lawrence, said these patent medicines existed in a sort of regulatory time warp. “These ingredients were accepted at the time, although today’s laws would block them,” he said. “Products were put together based on experience, not analysis. Some ingredients we now consider poisons were commonly used. But most drugs are poisonous at some dose.”

The University of Kansas has a small pharmacy museum. Its contents, including several hundred bottles, come mainly from local pharmacies that were going out of business and donated long-stored, very old products. Many were sold well into the 20th century. Dr. Audus’ favorites include Blosser’s Cigarettes for Bronchial Asthma, DeWitt’s Toilet Cream (possibly for diaper rash) and Cocaine Drops for Toothaches.

The museum has acquired print advertisements for several of the products. In one ad, for a mineral/vitamin combination, a woman laments, “He didn’t even kiss me goodnight last night!” Dr. Audus suspects Vitasafe was a probable Viagra (sildenafil) precursor.

Patent medicines required a prescription; some were made by legitimate drug companies. The majority of items at the Kansas museum were mass-produced, according to labels on old bottles. For example, Harrower Lab in California produced Thyro-Pancreas with Ovaries (dose: one sani-tablet before meals), which may have been a hormone replacement therapy–like preparation. The Merrill Company in Cincinnati, which later became Merrill-Dow, made red sugar-coated strychnine sulfate tablets (dose: one tablet).

Some of the museum’s mercury tablets are coffin-shaped. Years ago, “for poisons, the coffin shape was a warning that it’s dangerous,” Dr. Audus said. Although some products listed their active ingredients, he believes the lists often were incomplete. Strychnine, a popular additive, was used as a stimulant or tonic, “like a high caffeine dose, but more dangerous,” he noted.

A hundred years ago, sophisticated controlled clinical trials did not exist. The common practice was to simply combine into a patent medicine all the ingredients currently considered to be the safest and best cure for a particular ailment. Dr. Benvenuto said he is convinced that their prevalence actually contributed to medical progress.

“Nowadays, we start by seeing if a drug can kill certain kinds of cells, then we try it in mice, then dogs, then humans,” he said. “Obviously, we have a better system now, but I think [patent] medicine [put us] on the road to where we are now. Compared to folk cures, it was a first step at being logical.”

However, one famous “ingredient” probably did very little to advance the science. Although neither museum acquired any snake oil products, they’re not a myth: During his popular performances at Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition, Clark Stanley killed rattlesnakes, allegedly for use in his patent medicine. Stanley had production facilities in Massachusetts and Rhode Island for the product he marketed as Clark Stanley Snake Oil Liniment, “a wonderful pain-destroying compound,” product claims stated. In 1917, tests by the U.S. government determined that his product contained mineral oil, red pepper, turpentine and camphor (none extracted from snakes). The Rhode Island Supreme Court fined him $20 for “misbranding.”