SLO newspaper advertised patented drugs and snake oil


An 1884 Tribune advertisement for the patented medicine Hall's Pulmonary Balsam, the best medicine used for coughs, colds, flu, asthma, bronchitis, incipient croup consumption and all throat and lung disorders.

An 1884 Tribune advertisement for the patented medicine Hall’s Pulmonary Balsam, the best medicine used for coughs, colds, flu, asthma, bronchitis, incipient croup consumption and all throat and lung disorders.

The quality of medical care at the end of the 20th century did not inspire confidence.

There weren’t many effective treatments for the contagion, and diseases such as cholera were often attributed to bad air, lethargy of the blood, and other pseudo-sciences.

Ready for the leeches? There is nothing that a little bleeding cannot cure.

Cholera and other mysterious diseases could strike with regularity, killing dozens of people.

Some medical treatment centers – like the San Luis Sanitarium, Dr. William Stover’s private hospital in San Luis Obispo – wanted nothing to do with the disease. According to a 1907 newspaper ad, there was “no contagious or mental illness admitted.”

These patients were sent to the general hospital on the hill outside of town.

Doctor William Stover (2)
Doctor William Stover founded the sanatorium which became the headquarters of the French clinic. He was a prominent man at the start of the 20th century in San Luis Obispo. © La Tribune-Photos of the cellar 2009

Advertisements for snake oil treatments promising miracle cures filled newspaper columns in the late 1800s.

Often, the patented formulas of tonics included addictive ingredients not listed on the labels, such as opium, cocaine, and alcohol.

Concerned about the risks of patented medicines, an angry anonymous writer took to Tribune editor Benjamin Brooks on July 12, 1899.

The editor of the newspaper San Luis Obispo formulated a weak response in a column entitled “The deadly panacea”, calling the drugs “practically harmless” and “the same effect as if they were pure water”.

After arguing that the unknown ingredients were safe at the recommended dosage, Brooks went on to note that all the papers advertised the quack remedies.

“But every newspaper recognizes the public’s sincere desire to be fooled,” Brooks wrote, saying no law had been broken.

Samuel Hopkins Adams shocked America when he explored the issue of patented medicines in a series of articles published in Collier’s Weekly, titled “The Great American Fraud”.

“Gullible America will spend this year some seventy-five million dollars on the purchase of patented drugs,” reads a book based on the Adams series and published in 1906. “In return for this sum, she will swallow huge amounts of alcohol, a dreadful amount of opiates and narcotics, a wide assortment of drugs ranging from potent and dangerous heart depressants to insidious liver stimulants; and, in addition to all the other ingredients, an undiluted fraud.

The dangers of mystery drugs were rivaled by those of chemically treated foods. Toxic additives such as borax or formaldehyde have been used as preservatives to cover unsanitary facilities.

Public outrage led to the death of Pure Food and Drugs Act 1906, and a permanent change in the public perception of snake oil.

Science has made inroads since the early 1900s.

Hospitals are now treating people with infectious diseases, although the alarming rate of COVID-19 cases in areas like Idaho and Alaska has led to intensive care rationing, impacting treatment other emergencies such as car accidents or heart attacks.

We now have vaccines against horrible diseases such as polio, measles and rubella. Ten years of basic research have provided the building blocks for the rapid development of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Unfortunately, although the era of unfettered charlatans is over, the public has not lost their appetite for miracle drugs.

Invermectin, a horse dewormer, has been promoted by questionable sources as a treatment for COVID-19. As a result, sales of the drug have skyrocketed and calls to poison control hotlines have increased.

Scroll down most websites and there will usually be an ad for a miracle weight loss or anti aging cure.

Brooks was right about one thing: some people have a sincere desire to be ridiculed.

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David Middlecamp is a third generation photojournalist and Cal Poly graduate who has covered the Central Coast region since the 1980s. A career that began developing and printing black and white films now includes a pilot’s license from drone certified by the FAA. He also writes the historical column “Photos of the safe”.

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