Saturday, 29 November 2014


Health care during the 19th century was generally very primitive. Very few scientists and doctors knew what caused diseases therefore prescribing medicine involved a lot of guesswork. Many patients would die from the treatments given if the symptoms didn't kill them first. There were also types of con artists referred to as 'quacks' who would sell patients ailments, commonly referred to as patent medicine, for their problems knowing that it would not benefit the user in a positive way. Quacks took advantage of people's fears which meant there was profit to be made with products claiming to solve beauty issues. For example, gaining a perfect complexion was marketed as easily achievable and all women had to do was purchase some "absolutely harmless" arsenic wafers. In the late 1800s there was a fashion for using arsenic for cosmetic purposes and quacks were quick to cash in on this trend. The arsenic wafers made the skin pale by destroying red blood cells. Although arsenic is extremely toxic to human health, it was likely that the wafers only contained a very small amount of arsenic in them. However, there were still cases reported of women losing their eyesight and even dying after taking Dr Mackenzie's wafers. This was the price women paid to be laid to rest with blemish free complexions.

 Dr. MACKENZIE’S IMPROVED HARMLESS ARSENIC COMPLEXION WAFERS will produce the most lovely complexion that the imagination could desire, clear, fresh, free from blotch, blemish, coarseness, redness, freckles, or pimples. Post free for 4s. 6d. ; half boxes, 2s. 9d.— S. HARVEY, 5, Denman St., London Bridge, S. E. Use Dr. MacKenzie’s ARSENICAL TOILET SOAP 1s. per Tablet; No. 2, unscented, 6d. per Tablet. Made from Purest Ingredients, and Absolutely Harmless.
BEWARE OF THE MANY IMITATIONS. Have Dr. Mackenzie’s or none.

Quacks also benefited from the latest scientific discoveries such as electricity, magnetism and X-rays. They claimed that the use of these forces would be able to treat all common problems. George Augustus Scott, or 'Dr Scott' as he refers to himself in his advertisements, sold hairbrushes that professed to produce a "permanent electro magneto current" that was able to cure everything from "nervous headaches" to "rheumatism" and "premature greyness". The most successful quacks were those who used cunning tactics in there advertisements. By advertising a wide range of problems and claiming that his brush could solve all of these Scott was able to broaden the audience he could market his product to, in turn, making more money from the public. Probably the most ironic comment stated in the "Dr Scott's Electric Hairbrush" advertisement is that all other electric brushes are "fraudulent imitations... put in the market to impose upon the public". In reality, the brushes only contained iron rods that were slightly magnetised. The general public's confusion between magnetism and electricity worked in Scott's favour and he was able to get away with using the word "electric" in his adverts. Scott also draws attention to the shops address in his advertisement. This is a clever move on his part as his shop is in the Holborn area where the first electricity generator for public use in London was situated, making his product seem as though it was legitimate.

Advertisement for Dr. Scott's Electric Hairbrush in The Illustrated London News.

If caught in possession of this Class A drug in the 21st century, you can almost certainly expect to spend a large amount of time in prison for your crime. However, during the Victorian era Morphine was a popular drug regularly used in remedies for common illnesses before the regulation of medicine and advertising. Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup originated in New York in the 1840s but became popular in Britain shortly afterwards. Mrs. Charlotte Winslow developed the formula whilst working with infants and it was designed to help mothers calm their teething children. Winslow claimed that the syrup helped to soften gums, stop diarrhoea and help children sleep peacefully. What was neglected to say was that the reason this product helped relieve a child's bowel movements was because a common side effect of morphine is constipation.

A public notice for the syrup read:

ADVICE TO MOTHERS!—Are you broken in your rest by a sick child? Go at once to a chemist and get a bottle of MRS. WINSLOW’S SOOTHING SYRUP. It is perfectly harmless and pleasant to taste, it produces natural quiet sleep so that the little cherub awakes “as bright as a button.” It soothes the child, it softens the gums, allays all pain, regulates the bowels, and is the best known remedy for dysentery and diarrhoea. Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup is sold by Medicine dealers everywhere at 1s. 11⁄2d. per bottle. Manufactured in New York and at 498, Oxford- street, London.
Source: The Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle, Saturday 9th January 1875

Although claiming to be "perfectly harmless", each ounce of Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup actually contained 65mg of pure morphine - a toxic amount when given to an adult, let alone an infant. The popularity of this product led to a widespread drug addiction amongst children and in 1911, the American Medical Association branded the syrup as a "baby killer". Surprisingly, it continued to be sold in the UK until 1930.
Front of an advertisement for Mrs Winslow's Soothing Syrup.

Reverse of advertisement. When held up to the light, two crying children can be seen through the paper to show what happens when you do not purchase the syrup.


             Report of the Medical Officer of Health for Kensington showing the syrup as a cause of death.

Quacks selling 'medicines' similar to those described above were often conveyed in Victorian literature and Thomas Hardy depicts multiple quack doctors in his novels. In Jude The Obscure the protagonist encounters Physician Vilbert who is described as a "itinerant quack-doctor" (Hardy 21). From the onset Vilbert is introduced to the reader as a liar who is always one step ahead of the law as he takes care to "avoid inconvenient investigations" (21). Jude recalls seeing him tell an old woman that the "pot of coloured lard" (21) he was selling as an remedy for her bad leg "could only be obtained from a particular animal which grazed on Mount great risk to life and limb" (21). This claim shows that Vilbert greatly exaggerates in order to make a sale. Although the reader can tell that the intentions of Vilbert are far from genuine, Jude falls for Vilbert's promise to supply him with academic books on the condition that Jude must advertise his "pills that infallibly cure all disorders" (22) at every house in the village for two weeks. It soon becomes apparent that Vilbert has forgotten Jude and their agreement. Much later on in the novel, Vilbert's character appears again, this time selling a "love-philtre" (326) made from "nearly a hundred" (326) pigeon hearts - notice the pattern the 'Physician' uses of embellishing the ingredients in his potions. Hardy uses the character of Vilbert to comment on how easily Victorian Society were fooled into believing the false promises that the quacks offered. Vilbert does not face any consequences from his selling of counterfeit goods and from Hardy's view, Victorian society rewarded those with a cunning disposition and the ones who suffered were the naive, e.g. those who believed and purchased these treatments.

In 1858, Parliament passed the Medical Act which meant records had to be kept that showed who was registered to practise medicine. This helped deter members of the public from buying 'cures' from quacks who often advertised in newspapers or sold their products on the streets. Another factor that aided the regulation in sales of medicine was the publication of Secret Remedies, What They Cost and What They Contain in 1909 by The British Medical Association. The remedies in this book were investigated thoroughly by a chemist and aimed to give the best genuine cures for illnesses backed up by scientific information.

In light of this information about the different types of 'medicines' that were available in the Victorian era and their effects on people, I am sure I am not the only person thankful for the drastic advances in modern medicine!

Works Cited

Image Resources:

Dr.  Mackenzie's Improved Harmless Arsenic Complexion Wafers -

Advertisement for Dr. Scott's Electric Hairbrush in The Illustrated London News -                           Accredited  to 'Ian Visits'

Report of the Medical Officer of Health for Kensington showing the syrup as a cause of death -


British Medical Association. Secret Remedies, What They Cost and What They Contain. 1909

Hardy, Thomas. Jude the Obscure. England. Kindle Edition

The Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle, Saturday 9th January 1875

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