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.