A brief history of dangerous medicines

A brief history of dangerous medicines

From cocaine cough pastilles to heroin as a treatment for opium addiction, these are some of the weirdest poisons prescribed by doctors through history

This article describes a talk hosted by Mirthy, an online events platform and community which offers a huge programme of talks and activities each month covering history, literature, science and travel, daily dance and fitness, creative workshops and more.

This particular talk was delivered by Graham Harrison of Sun Jester as part of the recent series, “Medicine in History”. It can only provide a partial flavour of what has proven a very popular talk.

Graham begins by describing how poisons have been used as medicine for thousands of years and, in fact, that the practice continues today.

Most medicine in use today could be very dangerous, if misused. The difference being that today we have extensive controls and regulations governing the use of powerful, dangerous medications. In the past that was far from being the case!

How we got Coca-Cola, “the Great National Temperance Drink”

Black and white image of man holding glasses of coca cola and text saying "Refresh yourself" in vintage advertCoca-Cola was once marketed as a sort of wellness drink that could relieve fatigue

Successive governments in the 19th century were extremely reluctant to interfere in the practices of business, despite the potential risk to public health. But then the understanding of disease and its treatment was still little understood and the very idea of public health very much in its infancy.

There was a similar approach to advertising these medicines. Companies could, and did, make outrageous claims for the health benefits of their products, many of which were in fact utterly useless and, in some cases, downright dangerous to the public.

For example, can you credit that companies offered “sanitised tapeworms” as a slimming aid, or suggested cigarettes as a cure for asthma? Claims such as these, and even more chilling ones, could be made in advertising with impunity in such an unregulated industry.

"Companies offered 'sanitised tapeworms' as a slimming aid, or suggested cigarettes as a cure for asthma"

For example, the leaves of the coca bush, which had been used in Peru and Bolivia for thousands of years as a mild stimulant and a relief for altitude sickness, were marketed to the general public as a stimulating tonic.

Together with the kola nut, (incredibly high in caffeine content), cola was combined to create “Forced March” tablets, given to soldiers until the early 20th century, including expeditions like those of Scott and Shackleton.

Combined with alcohol, coca, sometimes partnered with kola, was marketed as a general tonic to relieve “fatigue of the mind and body”.

As the Temperance Movement became more widespread and the alcohol content was frowned on, one particular company even changed their name to become more appealing (Coca-Cola). However, it took them longer to remove the actual alcohol, accurate labelling not then being required.

Arsenic as a household product

The second half of the 19th century was the time when Jesse Boot translated the family business from apothecary to prescribing chemists. For this was the industrial age when the general public came to believe in factory made medicines rather than the herbal remedies of their ancestors.

Another offshoot of the age was finding uses for the waste products of industry. For the smelting industries this meant arsenic, for which there were many uses from fashion to skin tonics promoting fashionable pale skin for ladies.

"The general public came to believe in factory made medicines rather than the herbal remedies of their ancestors"

The uses of arsenic are so many that Sun Jester has created another talk on just that subject, “Arsenic: The housewife’s friend”.

However, new technology enabled the processing of “natural” products, such as the coca leaf into its far more refined form of cocaine; actually, the first truly effective local anaesthetic; but was also marketed in this form in cough pastilles and even children’s teething drops.

Opium vs heroin: A history of painkillers

Old black and white photograph of bottle of medicinal heroinHeroin was once prescribed as a medicine that could help addicts wean themselves off opium

The medical profession of the 18th and 19th centuries, still quite primitive by modern standards and being ignorant of many of the causes of painful ailments, were keen to make the most of remedies with pain relieving properties such as opium and morphine; also used to treat coughs, diarrhoea and other gastric upsets.

But there was no legal requirement for packaging to mention the ingredients of these remedies so both adults and children could be unwittingly poisoned by the very medicines they took to cure themselves. Of course, opiates, being highly addictive, could cause further problems for both doctors and patients.

In the late 1890s a German company, Bayer, announced that they’d created a product that was as effective as morphine without being addictive. A product that could even be given to addicts to wean them off opium. They called their product “heroin”.

"'One Night Cough Syrup' contained alcohol, cannabis, chloroform and morphine"

A typical example of these dangerous medications was “One Night Cough Syrup”, containing alcohol, cannabis, chloroform and morphine! Did it relieve a cough in just one night, or did users risk having only one night left on Earth?

Graham ends this informative, alarming and very often amusing talk with the reassurance that the medicines in use today have to be rigorously tested and subject to government legislation. So, we can be grateful that we are all very lucky to be alive today with the NHS to keep us safe and protected.

Rest Less Events is an online platform with over 100 events every month, including educational and entertaining talks like the one described in this article.


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