Case 122 --

Lash's Bitters: Biochemical Analysis of a Historic Proprietary Medicine

Contributed by Michael Torbenson MD, Lorna Cropcho CLA(ASCP) MT(HEW), Michael Moraca C(ASCP),
Bonnie Beiler MT(ASCP), KN Rao PhD, Robert H Kelly PhD, Mohamed Virji MD, PhD
Published on line in October 1997


Proprietary medications are an important and fascinating part of the history of medicine. In the United States, these medications were available from early colonial times, but were most widely used following the Civil War up until the early 1900s. The introduction of the Pure Food and Drug act of 1906 forced most of the manufactures of proprietary medicines out of business by requiring them to list the contents of their medications and by curtailing many of their extravagant claims. The medications were available from a wide range of sources: from traveling salesmen to Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogs, from neighborhood drug stores to saloons. Medications were available that claimed to cure everything from baldness to cancer. Typically they had a high content of alcohol mixed with various plant and mineral products. Many of them contained drugs such as cocaine, morphine, and opium. Others contained toxic substances that were thought to have medicinal values, such as strychnine (1) and radium (2). The different types of proprietary medicines can be loosely grouped into several categories (Fig 1).

Many of the medicine bottles and accompanying promotional products are illustrated in bottle collecting books. Academic studies are also available that look at many aspects of the proprietary medicines such as the history, economic factors, marketing techniques, and social issues. A selected number of these are listed at the end, in addition to the references. This case study focuses on the contents of these medications as illustrated by the analysis of the original contents of a bottle of Lash's Bitters.

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