Secret Nostrums and Systems

A hobby of mine is collecting antique books on health and medicine. One of my favorites, which might even be better enjoyed by a pharmacist, is Secret Nostrums and Systems by Dr. Charles W. Oleson from Harvard University, written in the late 1800’s. In this fascinating book, Dr. Oleson compiled formulas of secret remedies and methods that were published in medical and pharmaceutical journals. His purpose was to provide a convenient reference book for the public who were being sold products that contained ingredients that were not listed on the bottle.

Some of these remedies were sold over the counter and Dr. Oleson revealed what their true contents were. He shared with readers that a bottle of a solution for skin care would go for $1.50 and cost twenty-five cents to prepare, and would then give the exact formula so it could be made at home. Ever heard of fluid extract of capsicum, ginger, and sassafras? How about oil of tar, thyme, and turpentine? These were the ingredients found in Parker’s Tonic and Barker’s Bone and Nerve Liniment, respectively.

As I reviewed this fascinating little book, I was reminded that several commonly used medications in hospice are now available in a cream that can be applied to the skin rather than ingested! This is wonderful for people who are unable to swallow tablets for one reason or the other.

Medications for pain, such as morphine and others, can be applied topically (even in suppository form), as well as medications for anxiety and restlessness, such as lorazepam. Anti-nausea medications can also be applied topically. This is certainly good news if you’ve ever been so nauseated that just the thought of putting anything in your mouth makes you ill. Various other medications such as those for heart abnormalities and those that aid in sea sickness and vertigo are also available in topical form, sometimes applied in patches.

Dr. Radway’s Renovating Resolvent, probably no longer available at your local pharmacy, consisted of ginger extract and contained cardamom. A note by Dr. Oleson said it contained a lot of sugar and it was inclined to ferment! I, for one, am glad that we have the modern medicines we do along with the testing for safety that is required before the public can use them. It is clear that at the turn of the century, just about anybody could bottle up some ingredients and sell them for a profit. While we may not know the exact ingredients of every medication we take today, I believe we can rest assured that for the most part, if taken as directed, they are safe. That’s a good thing.