Alaska Life

For Alaskans a century ago, quack medicines offering miracle cures were part of everyday life

Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

On Jan. 20, 1919, the Anchorage Daily Times ran an article headlined “Them Flu Cures.” This publication came amid the influenza pandemic of 1918-19, also known as the Spanish flu, which locally peaked during November 1918. At least 28 people died in Anchorage from influenza during that time, in a town of maybe 3,000 to 4,000. For most of that month, the city was quarantined. Public gatherings were forbidden, including church services, funerals and celebrations for the conclusion of World War I.

There would be several more influenza outbreaks in Alaska in 1919, including a nasty spike in Bristol Bay a few months later. However, as far as the author was concerned, the danger had passed. The article begins, “Another reason why we are glad the influenza is over is because we hate to pick up a newspaper and find it filled with these kinds of ads.” Then there is a list of several increasingly ludicrous health product claims, including “Pink Pills Cure Flu,” “Villainous Dandruff Dope Will Cure the Flu,” “Funk’s Furnish-Polish Will Cure the Flu” and “Wear Our Rubber Heels and Cure the Flu.” The last cure mentioned was “Unwashable Socks” that, of course, “Cure the Flu.”

The late 19th and early 20th centuries were the heyday of the snake oil salesman, patent medicines, quack therapies and all sorts of fraudulent medical practices. These cure-alls were heavily promoted and often adulterated with alcohol, cocaine or other intoxicants. The medicines and therapies were typically backed not by science but by a desire to separate gullible rubes from their money. Progressive legislation, beginning with the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, slowly curbed the industry’s excesses. Nevertheless, false medical marketing continues to this day.

[How an Alaska village grave led to a Spanish flu breakthrough]

And as with many trends, what happened in the smaller states also happened in Alaska. Anchorage was no more immune from medical quackery than any other town in Alaska or the rest of the country.

Some of those fake-sounding remedy names in the 1919 Daily Times article referred to actual products. For example, Pink Pills had been on the market for many years. Its full name was Pink Pills for Pale People. The literally pink pills were advertised as a cure for anemia, partial paralysis, aftereffects from the flu, rheumatism, rickets, eczema, headaches, heart palpitations, nervousness, sciatica, pale complexions, “mental worry,” “early decay” and “all female weaknesses.”

Such broad claims are one of, if not the most obvious sign of, a quack remedy. If a supposed drug or treatment claims to cure a variety of unrelated symptoms, then be skeptical. Be very skeptical. At the same time, such claims are also part of their appeal. For what is more alluring than a panacea, a universal cure? Who wouldn’t be thrilled by a single pill that could fix every unrelated malady?

Pink Pills for Pale People were a ubiquitous patent medicine and thus a constant target for criticism. Ladies’ Home Journal scathingly described the product’s creator, the Canadian George Fulford: “Fancy a man whose imagination could conceive of the existence of a great business which makes its owners rich by actually and literally creating human distress and suffering and possibly disease where none existed before.” A 1905 expose in Collier’s Weekly examined the pills and declared them “a compound of green vitriol, starch and sugar on which purchasers waste their money and indeed may delay proper treatment until it is too late.” Yet the pills remained on the market into the 1970s.

The 1919 Daily Times description of “dandruff dope” referred to the proliferation of miraculous hair tonics. A 1916 advertisement for Anchorage’s Loussac Drug Stores, owned and operated by future Anchorage mayor and library namesake Z.J. Loussac, offered a quinine hair tonic to treat hair loss, itchy scalp and dandruff.

Quinine is a bitter extract of the cinchona tree native to Peru. Anyone who has drunk tonic water has tasted quinine. Quinine was also used as an antimalarial medication. As the first successful chemical treatment of an infectious disease, quinine gained an understandable but inaccurate reputation as a miracle drug. Most notably, quinine was a common though unscientific and ineffective treatment during the 1918-19 influenza pandemic.

Loussac advertised the quinine aspect of that hair tonic because many, if not most, purchasers would drink a quinine hair tonic rather than pour it on their scalp. As a Rexall-branded drugstore, Loussac also sold the Rexall Ninety-Three Hair Tonic, which was 24% alcohol. Many patent medicines and tonics popular before and during Prohibition were essentially liquors.

Many quack medicines took care to market or name themselves after scientific or scientific-sounding processes and products, including panaceas, tonics, elixirs, aphrodisiacs, tinctures and balsams. A balsam, from which the word “balm” is derived,” is a solution of plant resins. One popular product carried by Loussac was Parker’s Hair Balsam, which promised to restore “youthful color to gray hair.” There were far too many gray-haired Anchorage residents to believe this particular product worked.

Throughout 1920, Loussac advertised a device known as the J.B.L. Cascade Internal Bath. In addition to a free instruction book, drugstore staff were “glad to show” curious customers how the apparatus worked. An internal bath is an enema, which has real medical value. However, the J.B.L. Cascade was no simple enema. It included a proprietary tonic promoted as a remedy for insomnia, nervousness, vertigo, headaches, “liver troubles” and, more believably, constipation. In addition, “by its use one becomes immune against Typhoid and Malarial diseases.” As one doctor noted in a 1922 journal article, “The facts are it will neither prevent nor cure disease, and it is not endorsed by leading physicians.”

Far worse than enemas were the countless patent medicines and quack therapies that actively harmed the consumer. In July 1916, Loussac advertised a compound syrup of hypophosphites, which the druggist claimed to relieve “nervousness, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, mental and physical exhaustion” and a host of other symptoms.

The advertisement also noted, “Our special Compound Syrup of Hypophosphites contains in a palatable combination calcium, sodium and potash hypophosphites and iron, quinine and strychnine.” Quinine appears again, but the latter element should give people pause, as strychnine is an extremely potent poison. At the time, and in small doses, strychnine was indeed considered a medicine, primarily as a stimulant and performance enhancer. However, an effective dosage is essentially also a toxic dosage, and its medicinal usage was soon regulated away. As with many patent medicines, those who bought the compound syrup of hypophosphites, people likely in need of actual medical treatment, instead paid to poison themselves.

Other notorious patent medicines common in this era include Radithor, a radioactive tonic made from dissolved radium. Its public downfall came when its most famous advocate, industrialist Eben Myers, died from multiple cancers in 1932. No-To-Bac was a licorice-flavored gum “Sold and Guaranteed by All Druggists” to cure tobacco addiction. It did no such thing. Sanatogen was a tonic that claimed to cure depression. In reality, it was liquor. The brand survives as a fortified “tonic wine,” though the health claims have been downplayed.

Medical quackeries were rife throughout Alaska. For example, there was Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root. Later versions of this tonic were 10% alcohol, flavored with cinnamon and peppermint, and primarily marketed as a laxative.

In 1920, the Alaska Daily Empire, now the Juneau Empire, ran a series of advertisements for swamp root disguised as regular articles. “Important to all Women Readers of This Paper,” said the headline. It continued: “Women complaints often prove to be nothing else but kidney trouble or the result of kidney or bladder disease.” The advertisement suggested swamp root was the solution for irritability, nervousness and depression. It ended with an offer for a complimentary sample bottle and an entreaty to “be sure and mention the Alaska Daily Empire.”

But perhaps the most unique quack remedy of early 20th century Alaska was violet rays, which were advertised throughout the territory from the 1910s through the 1930s. A violet ray was a medical appliance. The business end was a glass tube or wand. When the machine was turned on, the glass wand glowed with bright violet light. When applied to a customer, the wand emitted an electrical discharge. In other words, it shocked the person.

Advertisements for violet rays across the country variously described them as a remedy for everything from acne to constipation. When Fairbanks’ Third Avenue Baths offered violet ray treatment in 1920, it advertised them for lower back pain, colds and rheumatism. By the 1940s, the violet ray market collapsed under the combined weight of federal investigations and liability lawsuits.

For Alaskans a century and more ago, quack medicines were a near omnipresent part of everyday life. Whether someone partook or not, they would have been familiar with the fraudulent products and their advertisements. As such, the heyday of patent medicine emphasizes the need for scientific testing and logical skepticism, particularly when confronted by cure-alls and other extraordinary claims.

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Key sources:

Achan, Jane, et al. “Quinine, an Old Anti-Malarial Drug in a Modern World: Role in the Treatment of Malaria.” Malaria Journal 10, no. 1 (2011): 144.

Adams, Samuel Hopkins. “The Great American Fraud: Articles on the Nostrum Evil and Quacks: V. Preying on the Incurables.” Collier’s Weekly, January 13, 1906.

Campbell, P.S. “Nostrum and Quack Evil.” Public Health Journal 13, no. 9 (1922): 400-410.

“Clear Water at Third Avenue Baths [advertisement].” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, January 22, 1920, 3.

“A Diabolical Patent Medicine Story.” Ladies’ Home Journal, April 5, 1905.

“Important to All Women Readers of This Paper [Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root advertisement].” [Juneau] Alaska Daily Empire, July 30, 1920, 10.

“Loussac’s Daily Gossip.” Anchorage Daily Times, July 28, 1916, 4.

“Loussac’s Daily Gossip.” Anchorage Daily Times, October 3, 1916, 6.

“Them Flu Cures.” Anchorage Daily Times, January 20, 1919, 3.

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