Cures and Quackery: The Rise of Patent Medicines
Denis Goulet, Université de Sherbrooke



During the 19th century, medicine sees major developments in the diagnosis of illness. But therapeutic practices evolve more slowly, remaining relatively limited. The demand for therapeutic products is high in this period of precarious living and health conditions.

Doctors and pharmacists make painstaking efforts to play a greater role in the delivery of health care. But they are not as efficient as today's professionals and the costs of their services remain steep for most Canadians. In the hospitals, druggists prepare remedies prescribed by doctors. In Quebec it is generally the nursing sisters who run the pharmacies and cultivate the medicinal gardens. Here again, hospital care affects only a small segment of the population.

Self-administered medication at home remains the method of choice for dealing with day-to-day ills. Numerous charlatans take advantage of the situation, hawking a broad range of cheap 'miracle cures' in the form of red, pink and blue 'cure-all' pills, vegetable compounds said to be equally effective, elixirs that make hair grow back, electrical gadgets that increase male virility, and so forth.

It is mainly in the second half of the 19th century that advertisements for these 'patented' cures - manufactured, of course, from 'secret formulas'- become widespread in the Canadian print media. These products, for sale on the open market, take a variety of forms ranging from pills, powders and elixirs to syrups, unguents and electrical belts.

Although most of these products are intended for the treatment of chronic discomforts like digestive problems, some manufacturers claim that they can cure very serious illnesses like cholera, tuberculosis and venereal diseases. But they merely mask symptoms instead of eliminating them. Nor is the regular, indeed almost daily, consumption of these therapeutic products without danger for the general public. In some cases, the effects exceed clients' expectations. A number of remedies contain narcotics and high concentrations of alcohol. It's just the way things are!

The drugs that most 19th-century doctors use on a daily basis are largely palliative, as opposed to curative, and contain high doses of opium, morphine, cocaine and alcohol. In the wake of these initial developments in the pharmaceutical industry, the market for remedies continues to grow.