Issue Overview


The Cure That Ails

The Adams House medicine cabinets open up
By Brantley Partin

The Cure That Ails
CREDIT: Adams Museum

Perhaps no occupation garners as much praise and admiration than medical professionals. Doctors are revered for their education, strict ethical standards, and dedication to the well-being of their patience and as such are compensated very well for their services. This has not always been the case however and in fact it is only in the last hundred years that these men and women have become pillars of the community. In Deadwood, despite its transformation from rough mining camp to respectable community, people shunned the services of local doctors into the 20th century. Walking into any bathroom in Deadwood one hundred years ago one would find a stockpile of home remedies purported to cure illnesses ranging from stomach cramps to headaches and even tapeworms. In many cases the cure was worse than the ailment and today many of these remedies have been long since banned by the Food and Drug Administration.

The mistrust of doctors in this country stems from the reality of early medicine in the United States where science played an almost nonexistent role in the understanding of disease and doctors needed no credentials or training; to be a doctor in early America one needed only to call themselves a doctor. A man might practice blacksmithing by day and amputations by night. For those that have seen the HBO series Deadwood, the character of Doc Cochran has more in common with Hollywood imaginations than real-life. While Cochran was well-respected in the community and took an interest in medical science, real doctors of the day rated low on the social scale and usually had no concern for medical science. It is because of this that many Americans felt that they, using home remedies, could treat a wide range of ailments without medical assistance (and in many cases they were right). By the early 20th century medicine was undergoing an extensive transformation spearheaded by the American Medical Association. Training, ethics, and scientific methodology were becoming more standardized as the medical profession sought to win the trust of wary Americans. While the effort was immensely successful, many residents of Deadwood in the early 20th century were slow to embrace the "new" doctor. From the poorest laborer to the wealthiest businessman, Deadwood’s populace stocked their medicine cabinets with some of the strangest, and sometimes dangerous, concoctions imaginable.

The Adams House is a veritable treasure trove of early 20th century medicines. W.E. and Mary Adams, while wealthy enough to afford the best medical help anywhere in the nation, stockpiled what today seems to be preparation for war in the streets of Deadwood. There was hardly an ailment or injury for which Mr. and Mrs. Adams did not have a cure. Stomach afflictions were one the most prevalent worries for Americans in the early part of the last century. Keeping the stomach peaceful and free from pain was seen as prevention for a multitude of greater maladies. One of the most common cures for stomach problems was strychnine. Today known only as a poison, until the 1940s it was widely used as a laxative. In the medicine cabinet of the Adams family there remains a vial of strychnine pills manufactured by Eli Lilly & Co. What is just as intriguing as the pills themselves is the method of their delivery. The pills are "hypodermic tablets", meant to be dissolved in water and injected intravenously. The tablets are only a tenth of an inch in diameter yet contain 2.2 milligrams of strychnine. Fatalities have occurred from as little as five milligrams.

Strychnine might have made you "regular" but the side effects were steep.

If injections were not your cup of tea there were many elixirs that could be taken orally. Camphor spirits were a popular cocktail and could supposedly calm a nervous stomach. The Adams not only had just such a remedy but the liquid was sold by W.E. Adams himself through his wholesale grocery business. The label directs the user to add 10 to 30 drops to a "little sugar and then mix with water if necessary." Camphor is still widely used today for aromatherapy and as an insect repellent but the FDA strictly limited its uses in 1980. High doses can cause seizures, extreme cramping, and mental instability.

In addition to internal illnesses, ailments of the skin were also a common worry for people of the early 20th century. Infection was a very real threat as even the slightest cut could become a life threatening situation and penicillin was not commonplace until the 1940s. The most common defense against infection was Mercurochrome, a mercury-based compound that became wildly popular after its discovery by a doctor in 1919. The Mercurochrome at the Adams House is stored conveniently in small glass vials with a gauze pad glued to one end. You would simply break the vial at the gauze end, which would soak the pad and allow for easy application to any wound. What makes this liquid so memorable is its tendency to stain the skin a reddish color on contact. It wasn’t until 1998 that the FDA changed its classification of Mercurochrome from "generally recognized" to "untested," which all but ended its sale in the United States. Mercury is highly toxic and prolonged exposure can cause tremors, cognitive impairment and sleep disorders.

Although dangerous chemicals fill the Adams’ medicine cabinet, healthcare a century ago was more advanced than people today might think, evidenced by the numerous products that are still sold and used by millions of people today. A tin of chocolate-flavored Ex-Lax remains in the cabinet and is an early example of one of America’s most recognized brands. The sheet of directions inside tout that Ex-Lax relieves headaches and “biliousness,” a graceful pre-20th century codeword for intestinal gas. The main ingredient is phenolphthalein, the same ingredient used primarily today. Also on the shelf of the medicine cabinet is a glass jar of Vaseline from the 1920s. Vaseline is a brand name for petroleum jelly, discovered shortly after the Civil War. It quickly gained fame as a panacea for everything from skin burns to throat irritation. Although still wildly popular today, the product is no longer approved for internal use, as was common a hundred years ago, due to stomach and lung inflammation.

Strychnine, mercury, and other medical marvels of the past such as heroin and cocaine give the impression that medicine a hundred years ago was still mired in the dark ages. Yet today we still wrestle with the safety and efficacy of countless products available without a prescription. Guarana, an ingredient found in many energy drinks, is thought by some researchers to cause strokes in certain individuals. Ephedra, a stimulant common in diet pills, has only been banned in the last few years after a spate of high profile deaths, particularly among athletes. Pseudoephedrine, the primary ingredient in Sudafed, has been linked to heart problems, in addition to its role in the manufacture of illicit methamphetamines. If historians and archaeologists of the future could examine our homes today, they might wonder how we survived in spite of the plethora of drugs found in our medicine cabinets. While doctors have emerged as respected pillars of the community, we still rely heavily on products available just around the corner and for everything from obesity to baldness.

Brantley Partin is the curator and archivist at Deadwood’s Historic Adams House. For tour and event information, call 605.578.3724.

Shown below are mercurochrome swabs and a vile manufactured by Bauer & Black.  Mercurochrome was a general antiseptic used on cuts and scrapes and is no longer sold in the U.S. due to its mercury content.

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