Read the latest HealthWatch newsletter:  Newsletter 116, Summer 2021

By Caroline Richmond

In 1909 and 1912 the British Medical Association published two books, Secret Remedies and What They Contain, and More Secret Remedies. They were a response to the thousands of ads for medicines, mostly worthless but some harmful, that assailed the public from billboards, newspapers, magazines, buses, trams and railway stations.

The remedies covered almost everything conceivable — cure-alls like Burgess’s ointment, nostrums for coughs and colds, consumption, headache, ‘blood purifiers’, kidney medicines, obesity, diabetes, skin disease, baldness, cancer, and epilepsy. There were remedies for teething in babies, ear disease, deafness, piles, rupture and inebriety. Most cost between 1s and 1s 1½d (s being shilling and d being pence) for the basic size. Some came in a range of sixes. The average weekly wage for a 55-hour week at the time was £1/10s for men and 12s for women, so they were not cheap. The books cost 1s each, cheaper than almost all the nostrums, and were crammed with information — each had 250 pages of small type. They clearly sold in huge quantities: my copy of the first volume was one of the seventy-second thousand. A tax, stamp duty, was chargeable on patent medicines, bringing the government of the day £50,000 in 1908. Advertisers had to print the stamp on the label and many used this to imply official endorsement.

Surprisingly, the books contain no treatments to boost, ahem, virility. Volume two has remedies for female problems couched in such vague terms that the reader can’t know whether they were intended for painful periods, absence of periods, or were supposed abortifacients — which of course didn’t work. These were expensive, Miss Lydia E Pinkham’s (“Lily the Pink’s”) famous vegetable compound cost 4s 6d, a third of a week’s wage. It consisted of 19.3% alcohol with a trace of bitter vegetable matter. Vin Urane Pesqui, old Bordeaux wine laced with uranium, was 8s a bottle and was claimed to cure diabetes.

Miss Lydia E Pinkham’s (“Lily the Pink’s”) famous vegetable compound cost 4s 6d, a third of a week’s wage.

The pills and liquids mostly contained everyday chemicals such as table salt, borax, bicarbonate, tartaric acid and sugar, with the addition of some colour and bitter flaouring. Ointments were mainly lard and olive oil.

A typical cure-all was Burgess’s lion ointment. Priced at 1s 1½ pence for an ounce, it also came in five larger sizes. A circular wrapped round the box was headed, “Amputation avoided — the knife superseded.” It continued, “E Burgess’s Lion ointment and pills have deservedly become the popular remedies for curing all diseases of the Skin, Old Wounds, Ulcers, Abscesses (including tuberculosis, Tumours, Polypuses, Piles, Fistulas, Shingles, Venereal Sores, Whitlows, Broken Breasts, Bad Legs, Boils, Scurvy …” and so on. It ends, untruthfully, “they are vegetable preparations, and the ointment can be applied to the most tender skin.” The vender claimed that all the advertised cures had been independently verified and references (testimonials) checked.

Mr Edward F Harrison, then a pharmaceutical and analytical chemist in private practice but who conducted analyses for the BMA, found he could make a similar ointment from 13% lead plaster (an obsolete medication consisting of lead oxide in lard), 20% beeswax, 11% resin, 12% olive oil and 40% pure lard. Estimated cost of ingredients was about 10d per pound, five eighths of a penny a pot.

In contrast, Munyon’s catarrh tablets and special catarrh cure, manufactured by a US homeopathic company with a London office, cost 1s 1d by post for 17 tablets. Customers were assured that they would cleanse and heal the afflicted part and should be used along with Munyon’s catarrh cure, which would eradicate the disease from the system. The tablets varied in size ranging 6 grains (a grain was about 65 mg) of sodium bicarbonate, table salt, borax, phenol (carbolic acid) and a trace of gum. Estimated cost of making 460 pillules would have been one tenth of a penny.

In all, Harrison analysed some five hundred nostrums for the first volume and the same again for More Secret Remedies. They represented only a small proportion of what was on the market.

Most manufacturers are long forgotten but some have lasted till modern times, perhaps with different formulae: Owbridge’s lung tonic, Veno’s lightning cough cure, Beecham’s cough pills (which claimed not to contain opium but did), and their ordinary pills, which contained a farthing’s worth of aloes, ginger and powdered soap), Doan’s kidney pills, Cuticura, and Zam-Buk.

The notorious murderer Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen had run the London branch of Munyon’s homeopathic remedies.

Years later, while reading a biography of the forensic pathologist Bernard Spilsbury, I learned that the notorious murderer Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen had run the London branch of Munyon’s homeopathic remedies. He had been sacked in 1899 for spending too much time managing his wife's stage career, and became manager of Drouet's Institution for the Deaf. Here he hired Ethel, a young typist, in 1900 and they were having an affair by 1905. He disposed of his wife, an aspiring music hall artist, and buried her body under the cellar floor, where the police missed it at first but found it on a later search. He attempted to flee to Canada with his mistress Ethel Le Neve disguised — not very successfully — as a young man.

They were spotted on board ship by the captain, who used new-fangled wireless telegraphy to notify the British authorities. He was arrested by a detective who sailed to Quebec on a faster boat. Dr Crippen was returned to Britain and hanged in 1910. Ethel was acquitted.

In 1946, Hugh Linstead, Labour MP for Putney, published a booklet, Patent medicines. It was two years on from the government White Paper proposing a national health service at an estimated annual cost of £170,000, substantially less that the nostrum makers were spending on press advertising. Linstead revealed that the anonymous Secret Remedies and More Secret Remedies had in fact been written by the analyst Edward Harrison. Harrison later became the first director of chemical warfare at the War Office. 

Declaration of interest: the author’s mother, 1909–67, swore by Elliman’s embrocation and its bible, the Elliman’s REP (rubbing eases pain) book. Being a good housewife she bought the horse formulation, which cost the same as the human version but was stronger. It was readily available from chemists. An internet search made during the 2020 lockdown showed that it was still listed by Amazon, who were out of stock. A 100ml bottle contains acetic acid and turpentine oil, is sold for the relief of muscular and rheumatic pain, and has had the same formula since 1847.

Caroline Richmond

Medical Journalist and author, London


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