Feeling bilious? Have a swig of tonic. Got a kid with a toothache? A dab of cocaine tooth powder could do the trick.
Much to the shock of our 21st-century sensibilities, popular remedies of the late 19th century often contained strong mind-altering substances like cocaine and opium. And while patients may not have understood what the ingredients were or what they did, these heavy-hitting patent drugs could deliver a feeling of well-being, which may, in some cases, have led to actual well-being.
Medical historian Fred Gibbs explains this counterintuitive take on an age that is more widely thought of in terms of quackery. First of all, he tells Shots, “the placebo effect is very powerful, and we underestimate that. Making a patient feel like they’re getting better actually makes them better.” A fact which has been well-studied in modern medicine.
We called him up after hearing about an exhibition, called “Pick Your Poison: Intoxicating Pleasures and Medical Prescriptions,” at the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Md., where Gibbs gave a talk a few months back.
“There wasn’t as much of a distinction between good medicine and bad medicine at the time,” says Gibbs. “Patients have always known that drugs taken in the wrong amount can be dangerous, so there has always been a grey area between medicine and poison. That grey area was far larger than it is now,” he says.
Over time, what was acceptable and verboten changed. Side effects and problems with addiction became clearer.
But not always. Society has always had a particularly complicated relationship with alcohol. “In 16th century Germany, brandy was like moonshine, made in basements. It was seen as this bad thing, but then physicians starting using it and it became a miracle drug, then the government started taxing it and it became this high- class product,” Gibbs says.
Drugs, especially those with mind-altering effects, seem to flow perpetually back and forth across this Rubicon between good and bad, medicine and poison.
Historically, the ebb and flow of our acceptance of strong drugs seems to be about more than just the drug itself. “Perceptions of medicines, drugs, and poisons are intimately tied up with who is using it and who we think should be using it,” Gibbs says.