Friday, April 19, 2013

Yesterday's ingredients

In 1865, Dr. Alonson B. Howard transformed a tiny clapboard schoolhouse on his property in Tekonsha, Michigan, to use for his medical practice. He partitioned it into 3 rooms: a waiting room, a laboratory, and an office with a dispensary (PICTURED). In addition to seeing patients there, he made house calls and made rounds miles in every direction by train, getting paid sometimes in cash and sometimes in kind. The cost of any medicine was included in his fee, and he was well-versed in herbal remedies, inspired in his youth by the local Indians. When Dr. Howard died in 1883, his wife padlocked the building and it remained untouched until 1956, when their great-grandson donated it to the Henry Ford Museum. It was relocated to their Greenfield Village, and its shelves likely contain some of the Museum's hundreds of patent medicines. The contents of 50 of these – including Dr. Tutt’s Liver Pills, Dr. F.G. Johnson's French Female Pills, and Dr. Comfort's Candy-covered Cathartic Compills – were analyzed by Mark Benvenuto of the University of Detroit Mercy and his students. The boxes listed the components and old newspapers included the costs and the ailments they were supposed to cure, but it took the nondestructive technique of energy dispersive X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy to detect the signatures of specific elements. As the team reported at the recent meeting of the American Chemical Society, these included beneficial ingredients like calcium, iron, and zinc, but also potentially toxic heavy metals like arsenic, mercury, and lead, in addition to cocaine, heroin, and high concentrations of alcohol. The remedies were promoted as much as a century before the creation of the Food and Drug Administration, and "patent" only meant that the seller had given a name to it. Benvenuto explains, "I don't know if people were in it just to sell stuff or actually thought they had something that would solve a problem. But if you stop and think about this, what we were analyzing here is kind of a first step into where we've come to today. If you go back to the year 1800, the way people got rid of ailments was a lot of home remedies. You and I might say they didn't really do a controlled study on this sort of thing, but no one had really conceived of controlled studies back then. That doesn't mean they cured nothing.

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