Cures and Quackery: The Rise of Patent Medicines

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Introduction

Denis Goulet, Université de Sherbrooke, 2003

How did Canadians care for their health in the latter half of the 19th century? In those days, medical science was making great strides in diagnostic techniques and disease classification. But curative medicine was evolving more slowly and remained limited in scope. With many Canadians facing precarious living and sanitary conditions, the demand for therapeutic products was high.

Doctors and druggists were struggling to secure a greater share of the health care market. Hospital dispensaries were generally run by pharmacists and apothecary nuns, who prepared the physician-prescribed medicines.

In the home, self-prescribed medication was still the norm for treating common illnesses. Quacks and opportunistic entrepreneurs capitalized on this situation, flooding the market with a host of low-cost "miracle" cures. As of the mid-1800s, ads for these patent remedies, or nostrums, crowded the pages of Canadian newspapers and magazines.