The Market for Quackery in Medicine During Late Georgian Era

Previously, I have spoken of anxiety treatments for Mrs. Bennet’s nerves. You may find the article HERE

Recently, I have been exploring a book called Decency and Disorder: The Age of Cant 1789-1837. It is by Ben Wilson. Amazon describes it as such: “Brilliant young historian Ben Wilson explores a time when licentious Britain tried to straighten out its moral code, ridding itself of its boisterous pastimes, plain-speaking and drunkenness – raising uncomfortable but fascinating parallels with our own age. Decency and Disorder is about the generation who grew up during the turmoil of the Napoleonic Wars, and some of its most exciting figures.”

In this book, it speaks of it becoming fashionable to speak of ones “nerves.” Those of us who love Jane Austen recall Mrs. Bennet’s many references to her “nerves.” [See Mrs. Bennet’s Nerves, causes thereof on Two Nerdy History Girls.]

Mrs. Bennet: “Mr. Bennet, how can you abuse your own children in such a way? You take delight in vexing me. You have no compassion for my poor nerves.”

Mr. Bennet: “You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these last twenty years at least.”

Nervous disorders and palpitations could be caused by any or every thing. Such disorders were a boon both to those who had training in medicine and those who did not, but wished to profit from the hysterics of others. People began taking a variety of remedies from powders to pills to elixirs. 

The Nurse: A Monthly Journal of Practical Knowledge , March 1915, provides us one account of a man took 51,590 pills in 1814, alone. The man died in 1817 “at a ripe old age.” Did the pills assist him to another three years on this earth? No one can say for certain. 

“Some people live for pleasure, some for fame, some for business, and some have never exhibited any particular reason why they should be alive. There are a variety of the human species, well known to doctors and nurses, who seem to live for the purpose of sampling all the remedies proposed for all the ills to which humanity is heir. With them, ‘doctoring’ is a synonym for drugging. They scan the advertising pages of every printed thing that they see, and they count that day lost in which they do not read of some new nostrum for the particular malady that is making them miserable at that particular time. Their well-worn path to the grave runs via the local drug story. They ‘doctor’ a while for the liver, then for the kidneys, then the stomach—of course—then for catarrh, then for all the rest of the diseases mentioned in the ‘ads’; then without pausing for breath they start in and do the whole course over again. The names of the ‘wonderful medicinal discoveries’ mentioned in the papers become household words to them, and they wait impatiently for the next one to appear. Their premises are renowned for their abundance of bottles, empty and filled. 

“We have it directly from the wife of one of these, that the poor man came home two hours early from his work suffering from an awful dyspepsia, and actually helped himself to seven sorts of medicine before night, going to bed without relief at last. 

“This was considered a record, but we are just mean enough to remind him and all the rest of his ilk, that they are out of the race—just one long century behind the times. The record for this sort of dosing was made in 1814, and so far as we know has never been beaten. We saw it in the Lancet, and that is good enough authority on this particular sport: In the year 1814, one man created a record by swallowing not fewer than 51,590 pills. His name was Samuel Jessup, who died in Heckington, in Lincolnshire, in 1817, age 65. He was an opulent grazier, a bachelor, without known relatives, and for the last thirty years of his life possessed a craving for what was then called ‘physic.’ In twenty-one years he took 226,934 pills supplied by an apothecary of the name of Wright, who resided in Bottesford. This is at a rate of 10,806 pills a year, or 29 pills each day, but toward the end, he took 78 a day. Notwithstanding this, he took 40,000 bottles of mixture, juleps, and electuaries. Some of these particulars were disclosed at a trial for the amount of an apothecary’s bill at Lincoln Assizes shortly after his death.” 

A very clever marketing idea of the time was newspaper and other advertisements promoting Balm of Gilead.

The Cedar Mountain Herb School Website tells us:

“The resin from the leaf bud (Balm of Gilead) of the cottonwood tree has a celestial scent like no other. One of my favorite activities is walking along river banks, taking in the scent of the cottonwood. It’s the leaf buds we gather from fallen branches after a windstorm that we use for medicine.

“Cottonwood leaf buds contain tannins, as well as anti-inflammatory and fever-reducing salicylates. The resins from the buds also possess antifungal and antimicrobial properties in the form of flavones. An oil or salve made from this resin can bring relief to pain caused by swelling, arthritis, strains, and general muscle pains. You’ll notice that the tips of the branches look like gnarled witches fingers. Or my grandma’s poor arthritic fingers. Or mine, as they are starting to look like Grandma’s. A bit of the old doctrine of signatures is happening there – plants sometimes resemble the part of the body they affect. A little cottonwood bud oil on my poor gnarled fingies sure ease the pain of the arthritis that’s setting in. Cool, hey?

“Cottonwood resin can also be applied directly from the bud onto a cold (herpes) sore. It doesn’t look pretty, and stings a little at first, but man, does it ever bring relief from the itch. It also does a great job with speedy healing of the lesions. If you are worried about people staring at the yellow glob on your face, you can use the medicinal oil extraction full strength. It works just as well (perhaps a bit more slowly), but with lesser visual impact.

“For a hot dry cough with a lot of hacking but little relief plus feverishness, Balm of Gilead resin works well to cool the lungs and bring up the mucous. The resin is not water-soluble, so making a tea or infusion would not work. How do we get the resin to the lungs? Cottonwood bud resin dissolves well in honey, which can be stirred into hot water or tea for sipping.”





Alan Mackintosh’s The Patent Medicines Industry in Georgian England: Constructing the Market by the Potency of Print speaks of Irregular Medicine Owners. For those of you interested in this type of book, here is how Amazon describes it: In this book, the ownership, distribution and sale of patent medicines across Georgian England are explored for the first time, transforming our understanding of healthcare provision and the use of the printed word in that era. Patent medicines constituted a national industry which was largely popular, reputable and stable, not the visible manifestation of dishonest quackery as described later by doctors and many historians. Much of the distribution, promotion and sale of patent medicines was centrally controlled with directed advertising, specialisation, fixed prices and national procedures, and for the first time we can see the detailed working of a national market for a class of Georgian consumer goods. Furthermore, contemporaries were aware that changes in the consumers’ ‘imagination’ increased the benefits of patent medicines above the effects of their pharmaceutical components. As the imagination was altered by the printed word, print can be considered as an essential ingredient of patent medicines. This book will challenge the assumptions of all those interested in the medical, business or print history of the period.

Several prominent men of the Georgian era made themselves rich in treating a variety of ailments, among them were William Brodum, James Coghlan, Bishop George Hay, Samuel Solomon (1768/1769-1819), and John Lignum. Solomon ran his business out of Liverpool, while Lignum was located in Manchester. 

William Brodum by E. A. Ezekiel, 1797.
(Image Courtesy of The Wellcome Library, CC BY 4.0.)

We do not know much about William Brodnum. We assume he was a foreign-born Jew. He promoted himself as a physician, having received training in surgery for both the navy and the army in Europe and obtaining a an MD degree from Marischal College in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1791. He claimed to be an expert in treating venereal disease. He was, initially, quite successful. In 1799, he patented Dr. Brodum’s Nervous and Restorative Cordial (nervous conditions, consumption, and deafness) and Dr. Brodnum’s Botanical Syrup (general complaints and aches and pains). He published his 344-page Guide to Old Age in two volumes in 1795. The Guide claimed the Royal family took Brodnum’s medicines, and it was dedicated to the King. Eventually, his notoriety caught up to him. He was accused of “planning to bribe” his way to becoming the President of the Royal College of Physicians. According to The Patent Medicines Industry in Georgian England, “Perhaps the ultimate indication of Brodnum’s celebrity was an elaborate masquerade at Foley House in 1802, attended by the Prince of Wales and two of his brothers. Artificial village shops were created in the great hall and manned by the local aristocracy and gentry. One shop was ‘Doctor Brodnum’s shop’, and the whole scene ‘produced all the comic effect that may be imagined to arise from the characters that composed it.'”

James Coghlan was a leading Catholic publishing bookseller in London. Coghlan, along with Bishop George Hay, the Vicar-Apostolic for the Scottish Lowlands, and Father Henry Francis Xavier Chappel, a Dominican priest from Leicester. These three men made and distributed medicine between 1770 and 1800. Coghlan published The Laity’s Directory, a periodical-style publication of the time. He made some five different medicines during these years, often including an advert for the product in the back part of the Laity’s Directory. It does appear that Coghlan had any medical training.  He claimed the recipes could be found in either the Jesuits’ Library (three of his 5 medicines used the word “Jesuit” in the title) or other Catholic publications. After his death, the profits from the sales went to various Catholic charities. 

Bishop Hay was the joint head of the Catholic church in Scotland. He set up the first Catholic seminary in Scotland and was recognized scholar of religious works. He even supervised a new translation of the Bible. Hay originally trained as a surgeon. He first designed his own Antiscorbutic Tincture in Scotland, but the proceeds were used for charity. He met Coghlan when Hay meant to have Coghlan sell copies of the translated Bible in London. He also sent along bottles of his tincture for Coghlan to sell, but it was not very popular, so he he later sent an improved version

Solomon, a Jew, had obtained an MD from Marischal College in 1796. He spent some time as a spectacle (meaning eyeglasses) salesman before he started selling his famous Cordial Balm of Gilead. This elixir was recommended for a wide variety of conditions, especially those associated with nerves and other debilitating disorders. Solomon also developed and sold an Anti-Impetigines designed to purify the blood for scorbutic and other complains, as well as an Abstergent Lotion applied directly to scorbutic eruptions. He promoted his Balm of Gilead and other “cures” through newspaper and other advertisements.

In his book, A Guide to Health, Solomon claimed to be one of the most successful physicians in both England and upon the Continent. He also claimed to spend at least £5000 per year on advertising. His success allowed Solomon not only to become a leader in Liverpool’s society but also to build Gilead House on the eastern edge of the city in 1804.

John Lignum’s fame was less than that of Solomon. When he lived in Edinburgh he was an apothecary called John Wood. Later, he became a surgeon called John Lignum when he was living in Manchester. His “circuit” covered much of northern England. Not being so well known kept him from being a target of those who criticized others like Solomon. Lignum produced his Antiscorbutic Drops and Lotion and pills, specifically designed for those with venereal disease, for some 30 years, working out of his home, first on Thomas Street, and, then, on Bridge Street in Manchester. 

The ingredients for Solomon’s elixir was not discovered until after 1810. The main ingredient was a half pint of brandy to which Solomon had added cardamon seeds, tincture of cantharides, lemon peel, and scented with Sicilian oregano. The “drunk” would feel the initial euphoria of the spirits, but then came the “pity drunk” lows. Afterward, a larger dose or a more frequent dose was recommended. 




About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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