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BC Epilepsy Society Blog

Medical Quackery in the Early 1900s

September 28, 2012 11:00 AMSend to a Friend

In the early 1900s there was an explosion of what could be called “quack” cures and treatments for epilepsy. Below are excerpts from a document that the American Medical Association produced in the late 1920s to debunk the claims of many of these substances.

Though the advertising and claims may now seem laughable and obviously fake, they were often seen to be trustworthy in those times. Particularly because many of these were readily available at drugstores. As is still true today, people and parents of children with epilepsy were desperate for a way to stop seizures.

The American Medical Association stated: “sufferers from epilepsy fall easy victims to the wiles of the epilepsy cure quack, who, without knowledge or conscience, leads the sufferer to believe that in his secret combination of drugs, he has discovered the long-sought remedy for the condition.”

In the late 19th and early 20th century the medications most often prescribed for epilepsy treatment were bromides and luminal. However, even though the “quack” cures usually stated that they did not contain these substances, they usually did. Often these were mixed with other harmful and unnecessary substances. It was very rarely stated what was actually in the product and in what amounts. This was exceptionally concerning as some of them had very high dosages of either or both of these medications which could cause extreme danger to those unknown about them. As well, for the ingredients contained within them, the cost was usually excessive as compared to the active pharmaceutical ingredient that one could easily have gotten prescribed by a doctor.

These ads and the pharmacological analysis of them give a fascinating historical overview of what was used for treatment for seizures before safe and effective treatments were developed. Below are a few examples of some of the popular products that the American Medical Association examined:


Hale's Epileptic Relief (laxatives to cure epilepsy???)

This was advertised under the claim that it "cures fits and epilepsy." It consisted of a bottle of brown liquid and a package of tablets. When analyzed, the liquid was found to be bromide and tablets were laxatives. Even though the company name was Dr. Hale’s Laboratories, this laboratory did not exist.



Dr Guertin's Nerve Syrup (contains a poisonous plant known to cause heart failure)

This was sold by the Kalmus Chemical Company and the Otto Kalmus Company. Kalmus had connected with his "institute" Dr. A. L. Guertin. It was reported that Dr. Guertin received $35 a month for his services to the "institute." Dr Guertin's Nerve Syrup was analyzed by the Chemical Laboratory of the American Medical Association and found to contain the maximum recommended daily dose of bromide as well as extracts of adonis vernalis. Adonis vernalis is a flowering plant that causes “refractory vomiting and diarrhea, slow pulse, collapse and, if no treatment is received, ceasing of heart function.”






Niblett's Vital Renewer (chloroform and alcohol to treat epilepsy???)

This substance, according to the British Medical Association's "More Secret Remedies" (1912), was the product of C. P. Niblett of London. Chemists of the British Medical Association analyzed the stuff and reported it to be essentially “Potassium iodid, 3.75 parts ; potassium bromid, 30.88 parts ; ammonium bromid, 7.66 parts ; chloroform and oil of aniseed, traces ; alcohol, 2.6 parts by measure, and water to make 100 parts by measure.” The association stated “it seems that although Niblett in one of his circulars deprecates the fact that most physicians "prescribe the same remedy, Bromid—Bromid—nothing much except Bromid," his own remedy consists of those same bromids!”

Luckily nowadays we have approximately 15 different medications as well as surgery, vagal nerve stimulation, and the ketogenic diet to help control seizures. This reminds us that even in severe cases of epilepsy we must focus on the advances in medical treatments that are available today, even with tough to treat cases.

Even in the early 1900s when medical research findings and diagnosis were still rudimentary, the medical association states what is still true today, “The rational treatment of epilepsy will naturally depend on finding, if it is possible, the cause in each case, and then removing that cause. Few conditions known in medicine call for greater individuality in treatment than does epilepsy.”

This blog post was written by Elvira Balakshin

Posted by the BC Epilepsy Society at September 28, 2012 11:00 AM



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