The 19th century produced a significant amount of great medical discoveries and inventions such as germ theory, anesthesia, and the discovery of cells as the building blocks of life; however, the 1800s also had some inventions that were not so great, such as the monowheel, the tempest prognosticator, and the star of this text: Dr. Thacher’s Liver and Blood Syrup. Found underneath a (now renovated) MARTA transit station in Atlanta, no one would think of the significance the object has and specifically what is says about the early history of medicine in the United States.
The body of the object is a rectangular cuboid for the most part. The face and back are of equal measurement, with a height of 3 and ½ inches and a width of 2 and ¼ inches. If the face of the object is turned vertically to its left, one may be able to read the raised lettering: DR. THACHER’S LIVER & BLOOD SYRUP in all caps. However, there is no lettering on the back side of the object. The last name Thacher is probably an alternative spelling of Thatcher (with a second t). The name is of British origin and was for people that worked as roof thatchers, making roofs out of dried vegetation(“Thacher”).
The two sides of the bottle measure 3 and ½ inches in height and 1 and ¼ inches in width. If the object is turned to its left side the words CHATTANOOGA, TENN. in all caps are exposed in raised lettering.
The head of the object is ¾ of an inch long and tunnel shaped with circular rimmed opening (a shape used in many bottles that contain liquids to aid in pouring) about ¾ of an inch in diameter. When looked through, the object is hollow except for the pebble sized remain of what seems to be a piece of cork.
The object is made of a dark tinted glass that shines purple when light is reflected off it. The bottle shares some characteristics with modern medicine bottles. Mainly in that the glass is tinted like most medicines today are, to prevent ultraviolet light from melting any photosensitive contents in the bottle (“Why”). As well as the slight transparency of the glass that allows the contents of the bottles to be seen by a user.
The bottle also bares a resemblance to modern beer and liquor bottles, which is interesting because many quack medicines contained some amount of hard liquor. Beer bottles, like medicine bottles, are usually not clear for the same reason. Because light can interact with the chemicals in the beer, and make it taste bad. Dr. Thacher might not have know this when designing his product but it is an interesting coincidence that his bottles had this feature in common with more modern bottle designs
It is also interesting that the bottle, while slightly translucent, is for the most part opaque, therefore concealing the liquid it carries within. This adds to the mysteriousness of its contents. Perhaps enabling the casual observer to more easily imagine that the outlandish promises made by the object could be true. It is generally harder to get people to believe that everyday non-mysterious objects have extraordinary powers.
A bottle of Dr. Thacher’s Blood and Liver Syrup is an anachronism. Seeing it today, one might think it was a gift shop knick-knack being as Chattanooga is a major tourist destination in the South. However, Dr. Thacher’s Liver and Blood Syrup was sold in the late 19th and early 20th century as a “cure-all” patent medicine.
The story of this bottle starts in the American South, in the mid 1800s Dr. Thacher moved with his family to Tennesse where he would found Thacher’s Medicine Company of Chattanooga (Schmidt). Most of the company’s products were patent medicines, also known more derogatorily as quack medicines or nostrums (fake ineffective medicine). While Dr. Thacher was a legitimate business man, he was probably a less than legitimate medical practitioner and/or chemist. His products were classic nostrums, with outlandish claims of being able to cure headaches, constipation, and all diseases of the liver. However, the only ingredient on Dr. Thacher’s Syrup able to produce any significant effect on the human body was alcohol, and sometimes opiates, perhaps only really offering a cure for sobriety.
Medicine in the 19th century
In the 1800’s the medical community had a major problem with the patent medicine industry. Medicine back then was not the most ethical, or particularly safe. And oftentimes doctors could do more harm than good for a patient. For example, medical practitioners in the 1800s liked to performed a lot of surgery, especially in the form of amputations in the Civil War. Also, it was not until 1846 with the findings of Ignaz Semmelweis that doctors discovered that washing their hands to deliver babies (a practice midwives had been doing for many years at this point) would reduce the occurrence of oftentimes fatal child bed fever among new born babies (“Semmelweis”).
Doctors at this time also had a penchant for bloodletting, the practice of bleeding people to prevent disease. It is now recognized by modern science that this practice is generally harmful for most people (Cohen). So with the lack of trust for professional doctors, many people turned to the patent medicine industry for answers (not that the two are mutually exclusive, quack medicine was, and is, sometimes pushed by licensed doctors).
Furthermore, there was not a lot of safe non-addictive drugs a doctor could give out back then. At one point heroin could be prescribed by doctors, and be in patent medicines. Aspirin (the first non-addictive and effective medicine) was only invented in 1899, a year after the heroin became commercially available in the United States. And despite, discovering the addictive power of heroin it was still used to treat certain illnesses (“The History”).
What enabled the boom of patent medicines was that the US government had no regulatory power over medicine. Anyone that wanted to could sell any home-made concoction without worrying about being sued or fined. And there were no shortage of American entrepreneurs willing to capitalize on this completely unregulated market. A particularly famous example is Clark Stanley and his famous “Snake Oil” which claimed to cure just about anything.
The patent medicine industry filled a gap between the limited amount of scientific knowledge the medical community had and a very human preoccupation about ones bodily health. In a way, quack medicines may have helped people feel as if there was something they could do to have agency in the face of illness. Sadly, any health benefits from nostrums were of course results of a placebo effect (unless you count being high on opiates a health benefit).
Of course, it would be untrue to claim that people in the 19th centuries did not value medical doctors. Thacher’s syrup after all does have the title of “Dr.” written on it and on most of the Thacher products. If anything, the use of Dr. on the Thacher medicines shows that the title did carry weight (however, whether or not Thacher was a licensed doctor is difficult to tell). Even today we tend to view doctors with respect. And that might lead to a respect for the title of doctor even used to market something, for example, with the medical products of Dr. Scholl’s or even with the television personality of Dr. Phil (although he does have a doctorate he is not a licensed psychologist). If the title of doctor did not command a certain amount of respect in the 19th century then another category of expert or profession would have been put in quack medicine names such as “midwife”, “herbalist”, or “priest”. But it was the figure of the doctor that quack medicine sellers knew would attract people to their products because at the time doctors were making great progress with medicine and doctors were generally trusted.
Reaction against patent medicine
In response to the patent medicine industry, the actual medical community banded together to form the American Medical Association (AMA) in 1847 (International). Unfortunately, they had very little power. As such, the patent medicine industry flourished well into the early 19th century. Although, to give credit where it is due, the AMA was the beginning of medicine taking itself seriously and moving from a home-based tinker style science to a collaborative accountable practice with standards.
While the medical community was trying to pull itself together, Dr. Thacher’s Syrup did reasonably well, according to some sources it was one of Thacher’s best selling products. However, the boom of patent medicines would not last forever. Many people were beginning to realize the dangers of quack medicines. The Progressive movement of the late 19th and early 20th century were particularly critical of the patent medicine industry. What made a big impression on people was the literary and journalistic pieces that touch on the subject of quackery. Many muckrakers investigate and publish written pieces on the lack of regulatory practices in America and the consequences. Upton Sinclair wrote the Jungle in 1906, which brought the unsanitary meat industry to the public’s eye. More related to medicine however is that in 1905 Samuel Hopkins Adams writes The Great American Fraud, 11 articles that explain the consequences of the patent medicine industry, such as death, injury, and fraud (Fee).
Samuel Hopkins Adams was very much right about the dangers of quack medicines. One particularly infamous example of the time is Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, which killed countless amounts of children due to overdoses on morphine, an ingredient which was not listed on the bottle (“The History”).
While there are no reports of Dr. Thacher’s Liver and Blood Syrup being responsible for the death of anyone, there are reports of Thacher’s worm syrup poisoning two children (“Schmidt”).
Due in no small part to the works of Sinclair, Adams, and other muckrakers Congress passed the first Food and Drug Act of 1906, which said that drugs could not lie about the ingredients in them (“The Pure”). This was a big problem because many patent medicines were nostrums, which are ineffective drugs that have secret ingredients, which were usually just alcohol, cocaine, or opiates.
Drug vs medicine
It is interesting to think about the difference between what we consider a medicine (which carries a positive connotation) and what we consider a drug (which can carry a negative connotation). Oftentimes, as we can see with the use of heroin and all of the “secret” ingredients in patent medicines, the line can get blurry. I think it is safe to say that when a drug is safe, effective, and has a positive effect on the human body it is a medicine. But of course, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Even aspirin can be lethal if someone takes too many. Also, there is a discussion in the medical community about how whether aspirin would pass FDA standards for an over-the-counter medicine if it were invented today (Lowe). In fact, many medicines that come out more recently are just as non-harmful in small doses as aspirin but are often only available with a prescription.
Patent medicines blur the line between a drug and a medicine. One would think that the distinction would be obvious, however, it is not always so. Even today, while cocaine and heroin are not medicines and having or consuming them is illegal, morphine is still used for reducing pain after surgery. However, its addictive properties are acknowledged, so perhaps knowing that these medicines have such an effect on the body plays a major role in deciding how to classify them and in what circumstances to use them. For example, when heroin first came out doctors thought it was not addictive, and they of course quickly discovered how very wrong they were about that. Addiction itself can further muddy the waters of medicine as it is a major problem in the medical community. As many patients get addicted to their pain killers and narcotics. Also, the (at the time of writing this) ongoing debate over the legalization of marijuana is another example of the drug vs medicine line. Since 1996 , use of marijuana for medical or recreational means has been legal in certain US states (“Timeline”).
And, of course, there are drugs that have been commercially available for a while, such as alcohol and tobacco despite their known harmful effects on the body. So there is more than just science involved in labeling something as a dangerous drug or beneficial medicine. The distinction is also cultural and drugs with a history of use that is tied to a culture are more likely to be accepted as medicines or as legal, and as such there use will be normalized and generally approved of.
Speaking of history, while the 1906 Act was a major milestone for public health, the law was not heavily enforced for a while. In fact, it took until 1917, a decade after the approval of the first Food and Drug Act, for the government to fine Dr. Thacher’s Liver and Blood Syrup for mislabeling their product (US).
Eventually the 1906 act was reformed to include false claims on a drug to be illegal, but not for a while. Public health standards suffered a blow in 1911 in the US vs Johnson when the Supreme Court ruled that the 1906 act did not prohibit false claims on drug labels, only false ingredients(“This”). Samuel Hopkins Adams writes another serious of articles railing against the ruling, which get published in the AMA’s journal. However, even though in 1938 it was not written in the law that a drug could not lie about its effects, both the states of Georgia and Tennessee complained about the false statements on shipments of the product in notices issued (“In the”). There is no record of Dr. Thacher being fined, the shipments of his product were just ordered to be destroyed. Although, if Dr. Thacher was fined the amount demanded would not have been too costly. Quackery fines back then might have been about 20 dollars (“In the”).
In 1938, Food and Drug Act is finally amended so products had to be safe to consume (Ruger). Then in 1976 the Food and Drug Act is amended again to include electrical quack devices, specifically to ensure that any device sold does not cause harm (Center).
One would think that with all the regulations on products, specifically medical ones, quackery would not still be a problem. However, it is, but in a different form than in the 19th century. With the widespread use of the internet, most people have seen advertisements and spam “magic” pills for weight loss or hair growth. However, people nowadays are probably a little more weary of false claims from products since we are constantly bombarded with false advertising.
Moreover, while the field of medicine had its problems in the 1800s; medicine today does as well. Specifically, the affordability of health care has become a problem. We have made great strides in medicine, but what is the point if people do not have access to it?
In conclusion, it is interesting to discuss America’s public health history. Most people in the United States today take for granted that when we buy food or medicine it will not harm us. But it took a while for the government and science to actually be able to make this a reality, and even today medicine is not perfect. And all of this can be learned from studying a tiny bottle.
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