Science & Environment

'Patent medicines' study X-rays old-time remedies

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Image caption Numerous products claiming health benefits existed in the era prior to regulation

The long-lost secrets of "patent medicines" - products that claimed health benefits in the era prior to regulation - are being revealed.

Scientists reporting at the American Chemical Society meeting have examined the contents of dozens of century-old remedies held at a US museum.

Some contained high levels of "helpful" elements such as iron or calcium, while others contained arsenic or mercury.

The exact recipes are still to be determined by the ongoing project.

Mark Benvenuto of the University of Detroit Mercy was approached by staff of the Henry Ford Museum, which houses a vast archive of patent medicines.

"They were able to determine from the boxes what the materials were supposed to be, and from old newspapers how much they cost and what they were suppposed to cure," Dr Benvenuto told the meeting.

"But they didn't know what the materials were actually composed of."

First glimpse

The team used a technique called X-ray fluorescence to get a first glimpse of the medicines' ingredient lists.

X-ray fluorescence works by firing X-rays at a sample, whose constituent atoms absorb an amount of the rays' energy and radiate the rest.

This fluorescence is a telltale sign of which atoms are present and a rough idea of how many there are.

The team found that a majority of the samples contained elements known to be helpful, such as calcium, iron and zinc.

Others contained large amounts of harmful elements such as lead, arsenic and mercury.

"It was very interesting to see what they did use, what translated going back to Roman times - what has been kept up as far as 'healthy' or 'ways to heal'," said Andrew Diefenbach, a collaborator on the research.

"They were going off of what had been done for years. With some, like [those with] iron or calcium, they would have helped - but others were in my opinion more bogus," he told the meeting.

But determining the intent of the person who mixed these nostrums, Dr Benvenuto said, was difficult.

"Some of what we consider the bad stuff actually was used to cure certain diseases back then - syphilis was cured by arsenic and mercury," he told BBC News.

"What we're looking at is a group of people who were getting towards what we now consider modern medicine, they were taking the first steps.

"I believe some were systematically going about trying to cure some disease or another - but in that mix there was probably a huckster or two."

Image caption The researchers examined the contents of dozens of century-old remedies held at a US museum