Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Back When You Could Get Morphine and a Syringe from the Sears Catalogue

I love history and I enjoy medical history. Recently, I came across this article on patent medicines from the Victorian era. I especially love the advert for the Vital Power Vacuum Massager.

While we laugh at these snake oil medicines and the people who purchased them, we need to remember how different times were back then. We’ve grown up with all the advantages of modern Inappropriate: An advert for cocaine toothache drops, marketed at children, which cost just 15 cents in 1885medicine. We understand germ theory, viruses, cancer, bacteria and the role they play in disease. We have the benefits of surgery under anesthesia, x-rays and MRIs. In the past, people were afraid of disease because they didn't understand how it spread. They didn't have antibiotics or easy access to doctors, meaning life-long pain, suffering, disfigurement, and death were constant companions. Patent medicines were hope in a bottle, and, with alcohol and opiates as the main ingredients, people probably felt pretty good after taking them.

We wouldn't be where we are today without the innovations of previous generations. However, it is interesting to see how hard some old habits died when we entered the modern age. For example, the belief in “miasma” as an agent of infection was alive and well during the 1918 influenza pandemic. That was less than 100 years ago. My grandfather used to tell me about the pandemic and about losing his mother to the flu.

During the pandemic, with no Tamiflu available and little understanding of the virus causing the disease, folk remedies enjoyed a great deal of popularity. I read a book once about the pandemic, and it explained how concerned parents would hang asafetida bags around their children's necks to ward off the “bad air.” Asafetida is a foul smelling herb. My sister once ordered some of it and even in a zip-lock bag in a glass bottle it stunk so much we had to put it outside. My mother remembers her grandmother regularly employing these bags during her early childhood in the late 1940s. We laugh about it but, according to my mom, my great-grandmother took it very seriously.
So, what will people 100 years from now laugh at us about? My money is on weight-loss products. I’m curious to hear what you think. What current medical advertisements or practices do you think will end up in a news article in the future?

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