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Doctors and Patent Medicines in Modern Britain: Professionalism and Consumerism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 July 2014

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In the late nineteenth century professionalism and consumerism collided in a vociferous debate over the commodification of health. In medical journals, before government panels and through independent publications, doctors condemned “quackery,” especially patent medicines—the Victorian appellation for over-the-counter drugs. They dismissed myriad pills, tonics and appliances as addictive, dangerous, or useless. This professional critique, doctors claimed, was an altruistic defence of patients. Their commercial opponents, patent medicine men (and frequently the press), countered that the professional critique was rooted in a pecuniary struggle to achieve monopoly. While ascribing different motivations to each other, both sides assumed that medical professionals were unanimous in their condemnation of so-called “secret remedies.” Peter Bartrip has shown, though, that professional opposition to patent medicines was far more complex and muddied by self-interest. The British Medical Journal, while criticizing patent medicines, carried ads for them, which made the BMA the focus of allegations of hypocrisy in the Journal of the American Medical Association and before the Select Committee on Patent Medicines (1912). At the organizational level, Bartrip has established that the financial interests of the British Medical Association undercut its opposition to patent medicines. This compromised position, I will argue, permeated the profession. If the British Medical Association could not resist the advertising revenue derived from patent medicines, it was equally true that many doctors could not resist recommending patent medicines to patients. Far from epitomizing professional altruism, the patent medicine question demonstrates the reluctance of doctors to abandon individual self-interest in the wake of consumerist challenges that would ultimately transform twentieth-century medical practice. In doing so, the patent medicine debate engages and complicates arguments about the role of collective social mobility in the history of the professions.

Research Article
Copyright © North American Conference on British Studies 2001

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26 In 1912 there were 312 patents for drugs. Report on the Select Committee on Patent Medicines, (London, 1914), p. xxxiGoogle Scholar [hereafter cited as Select Committee].

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57 Ibid., p. 188.

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62 Ibid., p. 268.

63 Ibid., p. 195.

64 Ibid., p. 398.

65 Ibid., p. 559.

66 Ibid., p. 464.

67 Ibid., p. 543.

68 Ibid., p. 525.

69 Ibid., p. 259.

70 Ibid., p. 308.

71 Ibid., p. 407.

72 Ibid., p. 456.

73 Ibid., p. 598.

74 Ibid., p. 597.

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79 The Capsuloid prospectus enthuses, “How enormous such incomes [those of patent medicine firms] are will be best appreciated by remembering that among the numerous patent medicines which have made fortunes for their owners may be mentioned Pink Pills, the proprietor of which left about £1,600,000 though he had advertised the remedy extensively for only about sixteen years.” See PRO, BT 31 12665/101565

80 The name was derived from the slogan “Cures Indigestion, Constipation, Flatulence and Acidity.”

81 PRO, BT 31 12665/101565

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83 PRO, BT 31 12665/101565

84 Legal Reports: A Capsuloids Claim,” Chemist and Druggist (20 01 1912): 41Google ScholarPubMed.

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87 Ibid., p. 1325.

88 Wellcome Institute, London, Contemporary Medical Archive, BMA/SA D176

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90 This was not the first time the company had encountered problems. In 1906 a fire at its Holborn offices required 35 fire engines to subdue it and resulted in heavy losses. See Fires,” Chemist and Druggist (15 09 1906): 419Google ScholarPubMed. In 1908 it was sued by the Motor Bus Advertising Co. Ltd. for reneging on an agreement to advertise on twenty London buses, a suit won by the advertising firm, who were awarded damages. See Capsuloid Advertisements,” Chemist and Druggist (31 10 1908): 679Google ScholarPubMed. Financial troubles in 1911 required the wife of the company director to use her £10,000 life insurance policy on her husband as security to pay for advertisements (Beecham's Archive, BP/4/3/1–3, Cicfa Minute Book, 10 March 1911). Dixon alleged that financial troubles arose from a batch of mouldy Capsuloids that were returned to the manufacturer and that had damaged the firm's reputation. But litigation against the packager, Duncan, Flockhart & Co., manufacturing chemists, was unsuccessful, resulting in additional legal expenses (“Legal Reports: The Capsuloid Case,” Chemist and Druggist (24 02 1912): 58Google ScholarPubMed. In 1918 Capsuloids paid £277 to the solicitors of the Daily Mail to withdraw action taken by Mrs. Bosher for a testimonial in which her names was mentioned. See BP/4/3/1–3, Cicfa Minute Book, 4 January 1918.

91 Letter to Alfred Cox from Managing Director, Capsuloids, 13 February 1920, Wellcome Institute, BMA/SA D176.

92 Memorandum from Alfred Cox submitted to the Standing Ethical Subcommittee, 9 March 1920, Wellcome Institute, BMA/SA D176.

93 Letter from Alfred Cox to Dr. D. Scott, 19 September 1924, Wellcome Institute, BMA/SA D176.

94 Memorandum from Alfred Cox to the Standing Ethical Subcommittee on 9 March 1920, Wellcome Institute, BMA/SA D176.

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102 Ibid., p. 624.

103 Ibid., p. 634.

104 Wellcome Institute, BMA/SA D176

105 Letter from Dr. R. Langdon-Down to Alfred Cox, 21 April 1920, Wellcome Institute, BMA/SA D176.

106 15 September 1924, Wellcome Institute, BMA/SA D176.

107 Letter from Alfred Cox to Dr. Langdon-Down, 10 May 1920, Wellcome Institute, BMA/SA D176.

108 Beecham's Archive, BP/4/3/1–2.