In the 19th and early 20th centuries, people suffering from any number of diseases and bodily discomforts could find what were touted as cures at their local pharmacy. Chloroform, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine were offered as solutions for everything from sore throats and toothache to coughs, insomnia and depression. These substances were often highly addictive, dangerous, and sometimes deadly. Most are now tightly restricted – if not banned from the market. Take a look and see what the field of medicine was like not so very long ago, and perhaps consider it extra motivation to get the best medical degree possible.
10. Cocaine Toothache Drops (Cocaine)
Although giving little children cocaine to relieve toothache sounds outrageous today, the drug’s use in over-the-counter medication was seen as acceptable from the 1880s until the beginning of the 20th century. Sigmund Freud extolled the virtues of cocaine for its supposed ability to treat depression and impotence, while Coca-Cola’s initial popularity may have been due in part to it having the drug among its ingredients.
Many medicinal beverages and tonics began to contain cocaine – long-term users of which may suffer seriously disrupted eating and sleeping patterns, psychotic delusions and hallucinations, not to mention severe depression upon withdrawal. Cocaine was banned in the US in 1920, but by then the drug already had a well-established market.
9. Bayer Heroin Hydrochloride (Heroin)
Bayer Pharmaceutical Products invented heroin (diacetylmorphine) and started selling it from 1898. The drug now responsible for a high proportion of all drug overdose deaths was promoted as a cough suppressant as well as a better and safer substitute for morphine and codeine. Heroin was welcomed with open arms as an effective remedy – this being an age when pneumonia, tuberculosis and even the common cold were scourges – and doctors by the thousand were sent free samples to try.
Nevertheless, no sooner than 1899, stories began emerging of people becoming tolerant to the drug, and over the following few years, addiction cases started to be reported. Bayer stopped manufacturing heroin in 1913, and it was banned in the US in 1924.
8. Kimball White Pine and Tar Cough Syrup (Chloroform)
Kimball White Pine and Tar Cough Syrup, which contained four minims of chloroform, was marketed as an effective tonic for cold symptoms and bronchitis. Indeed, as early as 1847, chloroform was used to relieve asthma symptoms and as a general anesthetic.
But despite the drug being hailed as a good substitute for ether, cases emerged of chloroform causing fatal cardiac or respiratory arrest. Multiple patients died after breathing it in, prompting doctors to revert back to using ether. In spite of this, however, chloroform was still used in mouthwashes and ointments. Eventually, in 1976, the Federal Drug Administration prohibited the use of chloroform for human consumption after the substance was found to cause cancer in lab animals.
7. Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup (Morphine)
In 1849, Mrs. Charlotte N. Winslow launched her Soothing Syrup in Maine. The cocktail, which combined ingredients such as sodium carbonate and aqua ammonia, may have been relatively harmless – except for one point: it contained 65mg of morphine per fluid ounce. The syrup was advertised as providing relief for children who were teething, and one mother wrote to The New York Times claiming its effect on her son was “like magic; he soon went to sleep, and all pain and nervousness disappeared.”
Unfortunately, children ran the risk of being put to sleep permanently as a result of morphine overdose. The American Medical Association denounced the syrup as a “baby killer” in 1911, although it remained on the market in the UK until 1930.
6. Ergoapiol (Ergot and Apiol)
Ergoapiol was a medicine made from ergot and apiol that was sold in the early 1900s to treat menstrual irregularities. Ergot is a type of fungus that grows on rye grain. From medieval times, it was used to control bleeding after childbirth and, in some cases, to bring about abortions. It can be incredibly toxic, however, as it is capable of reducing blood circulation to such an extreme that gangrene takes hold. Ergot may also cause hallucinations.
Apiol is derived from celery leaves and parsley. In small doses it can induce abortions and treat menstrual disorders, but in large quantities it may damage the liver and kidneys.
5. Nembutal (Barbiturate)
The barbiturate known as pentobarbital was invented in 1928, and the brand name Nembutal was first used by Dr. John S. Lundy in 1930. The advertisement above claims that Nembutal is an excellent drug to use “when little patients balk at scary, disquieting examinations” and “when they’re frightened and tense.”
Although pentobarbital is an FDA-approved sedative and is used to treat seizures and insomnia, it would seem dangerous to utilize it to treat nervous children (by inserting it as a suppository). Not only can pentobarbital impede thinking and slow reactions, it can also be addictive, while overdoses may be fatal.
4. Quaalude-300 (Quaaludes)
Quaalude-300 was a brand name for methaqualone, a drug first patented in the US in 1962. It was prescribed as a sedative, a muscle relaxant and as treatment for insomnia. Come 1965, it was the UK’s most frequently prescribed sedative, and by the early 1970s, it ranked sixth on the list of best-selling sedatives in the US.
The advertisement above claims that Quaalude-300 is a non-barbiturate, and while this is true, the drug does have barbiturate-like effects. Methaqualone depresses the central nervous system, reduces heart and respiration rates, and numbs the fingers and toes. Frequent users of Quaalude-300 could have developed a tolerance to the drug, and methaqualone overdoses can also result in death. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, people increasingly used the drug recreationally, and it has been off the market in the US since 1982.
3. Cigares de Joy (Tobacco)
During the mid-19th century, two prominent physicians began to champion smoking as a treatment for asthma. One of them, English doctor Henry Hyde Salter, believed that asthma was caused by nervousness or excitement, which were said to lead to spasms of the bronchial tube muscles.
Salter advocated a range of so-called treatments, including the use of stimulants, to draw what he called “morbid activity” from the lungs. He also recommended taking tobacco as well as sedatives like chloroform and stramonium to relieve and suppress irritation. As we now know, smoking can in fact exacerbate asthma – and indeed trigger asthmatic attacks – rather than relieving it.
2. Laudanum (Opium)
Laudanum is an alcoholic extract containing around 10 percent powdered opium. A powerful narcotic and pain reliever, from as early as 1676 it was promoted as a remedy for various conditions, and by the 1800s it was used to treat everything from meningitis and menstrual cramps to yellow fever.
Babies were spoon-fed the drug, which an advertisement for Atkinson and Barker’s Royal Infants’ Preservative claimed provided relief for teething pain, bowel problems, flatulence and convulsions. It also said that laudanum was “no stupefactive, deadly narcotic” but rather a “veritable preservative of infants.” The ad failed to mention that, besides its addictive properties, laudanum can cause constipation, itching, respiratory distress, and constriction of the pupils. Although it is still available, its use is restricted both in the US and UK.
1. Norodin (Methamphetamine)
Norodin is one of the most frightening supposed medicines on this list. It was the brand name for methamphetamine, the potent drug withdrawal from which causes depression, and which is strongly associated with suicide when used for long periods of time.
The advertisement above claimed that Norodin was “useful in dispelling the shadows of mild mental depression” and that it has “relatively few side effects.” Never mind the fact that it can result in various alarming physiological effects, including anorexia, tooth grinding, irregular heartbeat, insomnia, abnormal blood pressure, heart attacks, and strokes. It is also extremely addictive and is one of the hardest dependencies to overcome. Surprisingly, methamphetamine is occasionally used today as a treatment for ADHD and obesity.