Feeling a little pale and anxious from days in social isolation? Looking for a treatment or miracle cure for the virus that has taken over our lives and world?
Don’t worry … you aren’t alone! Around the world, news services are reporting that social media is ‘awash’ with misinformation and advertising for ‘quack cures’ and fake treatments for coronavirus.
Most people are familiar with the term ‘snake oil’, referring to a worthless potion or mixture marketed as medicine, which today has become a popular catchphrase, not just in marketing but also in politics.
Nonetheless, quackery – the promotion of false or fraudulent medical information or medicine (‘snake oil’ cures) for a profit – has a long history.
More recently, technical advancements in communication through online news, blogs, commercial websites and social media have been deluged by an avalanche of quack cures and marketing campaigns from an unregulated market – the numbers of cures today almost eclipsing those that proliferated from around the seventeenth century and extended into the early twentieth century.
Enter Dr Williams
A quack cure that is almost forgotten today was a ‘cure-all’ remedy, Dr Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People. Originating in Canada in the late 1800s, Pink Pills subsequently made their way to numerous countries around the world, including Australia.
Some of these even made it into the collections of Queensland Museum so we thought it might lift your spirits – as well as alert you to the potential risks of such cures – to learn a little more about them.
In the late 1800s, Dr Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People were widely advertised as an iron-rich tonic for the blood and nerves. The curative qualities of Pink Pills were also touted as a treatment for a long list of other diseases and conditions too numerous to list here.
The brand’s owner, an enterprising Canadian advertiser named George Taylor Fulford, ‘relied heavily on testimonials, submitted by customers, of miraculous recoveries … printed in newspapers in [such] a way that it was difficult to differentiate news articles from the advertisements’. (Wikipedia: Dr Williams Pink Pills)
At the height of the Spanish influenza outbreak in 1919, advertisements for the pills – like this from the Maryborough Chronicle – went so far as to recommend they be used as a blood and energy restorative for flu sufferers.
‘The blood is the most dependable weapon in the fight against disease and when the enemy is an violent as influenza … There is no better blood builder than Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills …’
(And as you might notice from the illustrations below, Pink Pills seemed to also have a remarkable effect on men’s moustaches!)
‘The man who needs blood’/’Full-blooded man’, Tit-Bits Magazine advertisement for Dr Williams Pink Pills, 1905. Image source: Dr Bob Nicholson, Edge Hill University, UK.
Promotion, PR and Spin!
Before consumer services like Choice or Customer Reviews became readily available, it was much more difficult to check the claims made by marketers. Purveyors of Pink Pills regularly sought to impress people by publishing claims for the pills’ efficacy by local prominent and well-regarded citizens, as illustrated in the following article citing an ‘esteemed’ Member of the State’s Legistative Assembly , Andrew Lang L Petrie, also a member of one of Brisbane’s earliest and well-known pioneering families.
In another article, the advertisers cited ‘Dr Guiseppi Lapponi’ ‘Physician to the Vatican’, as using Dr Williams’ Pink Pills in his practice ‘with good results’ (The Clare Sentinel, 14 October 1904, p. 7). It is doubtful that such a person existed, but if he did, Dr Lapponi was certainly hedging his bets, publically promoting, among other dubious substances, the ‘marvellous efficacy’ of ‘Buffalo Litthia Water’. When he died in 1907, it was made known that he had discharged his duties (consisting mainly of answering telegrams, it was noted in his obituary) for an official remuneration of £10 per month. Little wonder that he may have sought recompense in other ways!
Like other ‘snake oil’ cures, the popularity of Pink Pills waned following the signing of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act by Theodore Roosevelt. Among other standards, this piece of legislation, a forerunner of the US Food and Drug Administration, required that active ingredients be displayed on labels and a standard of purity levels for ingredients to be set by the United States Pharmacopeia or the National Formulary.
With patent medicines coming under increasing scrutiny, it was inevitable that attention would eventually be directed towards Dr Williams’ Pink Pills.
And so it was that, in 1916, Dr Williams was charged by the United States government with making outrageous claims over the medicine’s curative qualities in contravention of the Pure Food and Drug Act which also prohibited false or fraudulent advertising. A jury found in favour of the US government and ordered that all shipments of falsely labelled pills to be destroyed.
Luckily, not all those pills met with the same fate and a few remain to tell this story. The small bottle containing two pills (pictured) was dispensed as an over-the-counter medicine by F C Whittle & Sons Chemists and Druggists of Murwillumbah, northern NSW. The glass is embossed with the product name as well as the words ‘in glass for export’. The original cork stopper is in place and the bottle contains two pills.
Selling small numbers of pills like this as ‘over-the-counter’ medicine served two purposes – to increase profits and to make the pills available to poorer consumers who weren’t able to afford a whole bottle of the so called (expensive) medication.
As observers will notice, the pills are no longer pink. This is because, when examined by the British Medical Association in 1909, Pink Pills were found to contain sulphate of iron, potassium carbonate, magnesia, powdered liquorice, and sugar. Due to their iron sulphate content, the pills oxidised over time, causing them to darken and the BMA to declare that they’d been ‘very carelessly prepared’.
Panic, Conspiracies and Quack Cures
At times like these, social media has proved indispensable to convey vital health information across the world and for those experiencing isolation to stay in touch with family and friends. But at these moments, it is easier than ever to spread panic, conspiracy theories and quack cures. To help stem the spread of disinformation governments and health authorities around the world have called on people to report any quack cures or misinformation about Covid19 to authorities.
Today, as in the past, it’s vital that we exercise caution and think carefully and clearly about where our information is coming from.
Dr Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People
Source: Wellcome Collection. L0058211.
Label from a bottle of Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment
Source: True Life in the Far West, 200 page pamphlet, illus., Worcester, Massachusetts, c. 1905.
H47756 Bottle containing two pills
Source: Queensland Museum
 ‘After Influenza’, Maryborough Chronicle, Wide Bay and Burnett Advertiser, Saturday, 2 August 1919.
 ‘Mr A L Petrie’, The Telegraph, Saturday, 5 January 1901, p.7.
 ‘The Pope’s Physician’, Western Mail, 26 January 1907, p.44.
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