The Kill or the Cure: how trade and science changed perceptions of medicinal drugs

26 October 2015

Cultural Studies | History

Before the advances in science and trade networks during the nineteenth century, our ancestors, in their isolated communities, had to make sense of the natural world through trial and error. Popular Medicine in America, 1800-1900 documents how physicians used their traditional knowledge of plants and human anatomy to treat ailments, and how they gradually incorporated new ideas and techniques into their cures as science and increased global interaction expanded their understanding.

The opening up of new trade routes in the eighteenth century had a big impact on the art of medicine. Many commodities used for medical purposes were now readily available and accessible – but while this might have seemed like an advantage at the time, it soon led to problems.


Opium is a classic example of a commodity that span out of control. For many years it had been used to treat all kinds of medical problems, but by 1800 it was so easily obtainable that many people used it not out of necessity but for recreation. This widespread abuse of the drug gave it a bad name, and federal laws were passed to restrict and later ban its use altogether. Popular opinion of opium changed dramatically over the century, but, despite its bad reputation, it appears in 'A review of the drug trade of New-York, 1900' as a marketable commodity still being imported from Turkey and Persia.


The art of medicine was also greatly impacted by new scientific advances during the nineteenth century. Tobacco, a favourite treat among Westerners since the 1560s, had always been considered harmless, but by the 1890s studies were starting to make the medical profession aware of its dangers. Advice and promotional material appeared featuring articles on the health implications of smoking and medicated cigarettes.

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Alcohol had been a staple in the physician’s medicine chest for centuries as an anaesthetic, antiseptic and general pick-me-up. The dangers of overindulging in alcohol had always been well known, but it was the Temperance Movement that eventually called for tighter restrictions on its consumption. The movement, which thrived between the late 1700s and the 1930s era of Prohibition, was founded partly as a result of the high number of violent abuse cases relating to drunkenness. Many medical practitioners jumped on the temperance bandwagon, aligning the movement’s moral motives with new scientific evidence that diet and hygiene were essential for good health. They wrote pamphlets to advocate an alcohol-free lifestyle alongside other beneficial practices such as vegetarianism or exercise.

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As the nineteenth century drew to a close, pharmaceutical manufacturers began to change their approach in order to tap into this new market of health-conscious teetotallers. Substitute products such as Kelly’s Hop Ale claimed to be the perfect alternative to alcoholic beverages. ‘Cures’ for opium addiction ensured that there was still profit to be made from the disgraced drug, and ‘opium-free’ became a buzz-word in advertising as traders used the lack of opium in their products as a major selling point - for instance, Buckwalter's Sure Cure Cough Syrup.


Image Â© Library Company of Philadelphia​. Further reproduction prohibited without permission


Popular Medicine in America, 1800-1900 traces the use and changing perceptions of these three major commodities, as scientific advancements and better global connections brought new knowledge to the medical community, and to the public at large.






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About the Author

Harriet Brunsdon Jones

Harriet Brunsdon Jones

I’ve been working at Adam Matthew since March 2013, following several years in magazine and journals publishing. Projects I’ve worked on include Shakespeare in Performance, Popular Medicine in America, Global Commodities, and China, America and the Pacific – all assisted by copious quantities of tea.

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