|Eli Lilly Amphedroxyn (methamphetamine) advertisement, 1951. New York
State Journal of Medicine, Vol. 51, No. 1. (Via the Bonkers Institute).
|Portuguese physician João Curvo Semedo, 1707, sporting
the extravagant locks typical of his era. Image via
the Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal.
In his book Polyanthea Medicinal (Lisbon, 1697), a Portuguese doctor and seller of remedios secretos (“secret remedies”) named João Curvo Semedo listed hundreds of early modern drug recipes. Semedo rather resembled the British drug seller and author William Salmon (who I wrote about in a previous post) in his readiness to experiment with both remedies from the New World and alchemical preparations being developed by acolytes of Paracelsus. The substances listed as medicinal drugs in Polyanthea Medicinal run the gamut from dog feces to powdered pearls, and from ordinary table salt to mysterious stones “found on the beach of Casomdama in the Kingdom of Angola,” which, “after being put in wounds caused by any venomous beast, will draw out the venom.” The unusual range of Semedo’s pharmacy led one nineteenth century Portuguese medical student to remark in his doctoral thesis that he believed the book would “nauseate” any modern reader. Later generations tended to view Semedo as a physician in the “quack doctor” tradition of mountebanks and snake-oil salesman. Interestingly, he actually acknowledged this criticism in his own work, beginning his book with the following “plea to the Readers.” (The below is a rough paraphrase from the rather more Baroque Portuguese original):
In the Parisian Court, and in many other parts of the world, there are those who knowing some singular remedy, affix papers at the most traficked roads, proclaiming to all who live in these areas that they have a panacea useful for all illnesses. These fellows distribute their papers to people they encounter in the street, so that all may know where to go to find such a remedy.
Such men gain such profit from this that they desire to do the same in Portugal, and give notice of secret medicines… However I have long suppressed my wish to follow suit, knowing that these days there is no labor that escapes the malice of others. Now however, the criticisms that have been made about my aim are not able to ignite the fire of choler in my heart, because my anger has been reduced to little more than ashes. Thus I resolve to speak of the medicines which I myself possess.
The ensuing list of what Semedo called “the Remedies that I prepare in my house” included his eponymous preparation “Bezoartico Curviano,” an “Agua Lusitana” (Portuguese water), and a “powder which cures the involuntary flux of semen.”
Similar advertisements for specially prepared drug formulations began to appear in medical texts throughout Europe in the late seventeenth century. Readers of English language newspapers in the era of Newton and Locke, for instance, began to encounter notices such as the following, from the newspaper Domestick Intelligence or News both from City and Country (12 Sept 1679, originally plucked out of obscurity by Carolyn Rance at the Quack Doctor):
This sort of thing might not quite have the same form or content as the 1950s advertisement for methamphetamine that begins this post, but it was the beginning of a long tradition that wed drug marketing with global capitalism and print culture. The fruits of this alliance are very much still with us — whenever you see an advertisement for Lipitor or Adderall in a magazine or on a billboard, or your physician offers you a free sample of a drug given to him by a pharmaceutical sales rep, you’re unwittingly taking part in a tradition that dates back to the first era of entrepreneurial drug merchants in the second half of the seventeenth century. Indeed, pharmaceutical giant Merck dates its founding to an apothecary named Friedrick Jacob Merck who opened his drug shop in precisely this early modern era of global commercial expansion and medical experimentation — 1668, to be precise.
The following advertisements bring the story forward to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Some of the things here — like the popularity of cocaine as an energy tonic and ingredient in Coca-Cola around the turn of the twentieth century — will probably be familiar. Others, like the fact that methamphetamine (under the trade name Desoxyn) is still approved by the FDA as a weight loss drug, might be less well known. Most of the images below were collected by Ben Hansen of the Bonkers Institute, and I direct interested readers to his unusual and rather fascinating site for more where these came from.
|Benzedrine advertisements, 1943 & 1944. Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 123, No. 10; Vol. 124, No. 12.|
|This contemporary (mid-2000s) ad for Adderall continues the story up to the present day.|
One common theme of these drug advertisements is the manner in which they use branding, particularly naming practices, to differentiate what is actually a surprisingly small core group of consumer drugs. Adderall, for instance, is simply a trade name for a mixture of amphetamine salts – of which one quarter is d,l racemic amphetamine, i.e. our old friend Benzedrine. This is a story that goes back to the era of João Curvo Semedo, William Salmon and Thomas Sydenham. Rather than marketing one’s “remedio secreto” as nothing more than a tincture of opium in wine, early modern drug sellers seized on the idea of selling these preparations under catchy names — “Sydenham’s Drops,” for instance — and obscuring their source ingredients. This marked, arguably, the beginning of the massive pharmaceutical branding industry.