Warner’s Safe Cure: Yellow Fever

picture of Dr. Walter Reed Dr. Carlos Finlay

When you and I think about patent medicine from the 19th Century, most of us shake our heads and think what a bunch of dopes people were to believe the claims made by the likes of Warner’s Safe Cure. After all, who would think that a couple of bottles of anything could cure you of diabetes or kidney disease. What you have to keep in mind is that the state of medical education was in its infancy. Most Americans did not have a family doctor or access to a doctor at all and were on their own when it came to dealing with disease. A perfect atmosphere for selling patent medicine.

The enormous downside to the whole patent medicine industry, which takes it out of the realm of quaint history, was that genuinely ill people undoubtely purchased this stuff and relied upon it to their detriment. One recent example that I found dealt with the various serious Yellow Fever virus. This virus sickened and killed thousands, until it was isolated and a vaccine was developed through the efforts of Carlos Finlay (above right) and Walter Reed (above left), among others. Although we usually associate it with tropical regions, Yellow Fever cropped up in places like Philadelphia and the District of Columbia. A Warner’s Safe Cure ad running in the National Republican in 1880 actually claimed to prevent Yellow Fever:

 The ad asserts the widely believed notion that viruses like Yellow Fever were the result of breathing bad air (mal-aria) and not the result of transmission by insect bite. This notion dated back centuries and was ultimately laid to rest by the study of infectious diseases. The ad makes a second, and equally false, leap of faith that bad air poisons the blood. This claim flows directly into Warner’s tried and true theme that almost all disease was the result of  impurities in the blood.

For those who actually contracted Yellow Fever in 1880 and  had consumed Warner’s Safe Kidney & Liver Cure in hopes that it would prevent their suffering, one can only hope that they recovered notwithstanding the medicine. It was claims like this one, to cure Yellow Fever, that justifiably gave rise to the  Pure Food & Drug Act and ultimately, what we know today as the Food & Drug Administration.



3 thoughts on “Warner’s Safe Cure: Yellow Fever

  1. I’m looking for a higher resolution file of the “It is Confidently Asserted…” ad for Warner’s to reproduce in a forthcoming book for young readers about Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of Girl Scouts in the USA. Can someone point me in the right direction. There seems to be very few appropriate images from the mid to late 1800s on the subject. This particular ad will have a caption that points out how little was known about the cause of yellow fever at the time. Thank you.

    • Bill,
      The ad you refer to was taken off the Library of Congress’ digital archive. Unfortunately, I don’t have a better copy. It was from the National Republican in 1880 and was repeated numerous times in that publication that year. The only suggestion I have is to check with them and see if they are willing to make a better digital copy for you or, if you are close by, visit them. Please let me know if you have any success.


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