Lotions, Potions, and Deadly Elixirs: Frontier Medicine in America (Book Review)

Reviewed by Luc Nettleton
By Wayne Bethard
Taylor Trade Publishing (Roberts Rinehart), Lanham, Md., 2004

No doubt practicing pharmacist Wayne Bethard, of Longview, Texas, wouldn’t recommend too many of the medicines he introduces in this 256-page book, but taken as a whole, all these colorfully named frontier medicines result in a package that is pleasing to the eye and could cure you of the “same old-same old reading blues.” Consider some of the names of once popular forms of medicine—sugartits (sugary medicine for babies), booty balls (silver mercury pills), cachets (crude precursors to capsules) and folded powders (easier to swallow than pills or tablets). And consider some of the medicines themselves (Bethard lists them and even provides recommended dosages)—bat dung (guano), juniper tar, nux vomica, turpentine, hog lard, nutgall, pomegranate, stinging nettle and sarsaparilla. But don’t forget to read Bethard’s disclaimer: “Neither the author nor the publisher assumes responsibility for inaccuracies or patient care associated with the application of information contained in this presentation. People not of the health profession should seek appropriate professional supervision on the utilization of any medicine before using it.” In other words, cool it on the turpentine, unless you need a paint thinner.

The book is educational and entertaining, thanks to Bethard’s light-hearted touch. His second section is titled “Treatments: The Good, the Sad, and the Ungodly.” Lives were sometimes saved by medicines and treatments used in the 19th century and earlier, but, if we need any reminding, the author tells us that “many old medicines and treatments were indeed pure bunk.” For all you Viagra fans, Bethard mentions that Frank Miller, a doctor whose book Domestic Medical Practice was in its 23rd edition in 1912, presented “Dr. Miller’s Impotency Prescription.” Sorry, you’ll have to read either Miller’s book or Bethard’s book to get the full prescription, but Bethard warns us that two of the ingredients were potent poisons and that only two other ingredients, iron and quinine, had any real medical significance. Fans of the Wild West should delight in reading Bethard’s consideration of “The Snake Oil Legacies.” Those “drummers” who peddled their goods at medicine shows from the backs of wagons were known to stretch their claims a country mile or two. A fine pair of 1880s con men, Doctor Lone Starr (a k a Texas Charlie Bigelow) and Doc. John E. Healy, would plant shills in the audience who became cured on the spot when they sampled the duo’s cure-all remedies.

Much of the book is tongue-in-cheek, but there are plenty of facts here…and some of them will scare the living daylights out of you, even more than a notorious gunslinger could. Modern-day medicine has its faults, but on paper at least, it is a lot better to be sick today than in yesteryear. Accompanying the text are fine photos of the author’s colorful collection of bottle labels and advertising art. It’s not easy to resist “Dr. Williams’ pink pills for pale people,” “Crazy Water Crystals,” “Dr. Tabler’s buckeye pile cure” and “Lithgow’s AWAGA tonic compound” (so that you “don’t drop dead from bowel poisoning”). In the back of the book, you’ll find a list of worthy frontier medical dates, as well as definitions of “old and nearly forgotten medical terms.” And good luck with your pyrosis and tetter.

6 Responses

  1. Dwon Baird

    I wanted to know the name of the medicine used in the wild west for lung cancer? The medicine was used in the movie Tomb Stone and Wyatt Earp. In both movies Wyatt’s wife used the medicine.

    Reply
  2. Debra

    The medicine that was used by Wyatt’s wife in the movies was Laudanum. It was a pain killer. It is opium mixed with alcohol. I do not believe that it was used to treat cancer. It was mostly used as a pain killer and was addictive

    Reply
  3. Citizen Sane

    Laudanum was widely available and even Abraham Lincoln’s wife was addicted to it. I cannot find an exact cost but it was cheaper than a bottle of Gin or wine.

    Reply
  4. brenda moss

    Laudnum was the medicine in the movie tombstone. it was used to cure any heart or lung issues and actually caused more harm than good. patients often overdosed or developed lung infection and pneumonia which people back then would die. hope this helps :)

    Reply

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