Case 122 --

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


The contents of Lash's Bitters illustrates the typical contents of proprietary medicines of the late 1800's and early 1900's. Principally, the product contained large amounts of alcohol. Like most proprietary medicines, it was based on a herbal remedy. It was advertised to contain Rhamnus purshiana, an herbal laxative that was known and utilized by Native Americans. Many herbal remedies of this time did have medicinal value, but even those that did often had little, if any, of the active ingredients, as illustrated by the analyses of this bottle of Lash's Bitters. We also detected trace amounts of methanol and large levels of lead that could have posed serious health hazards to those who regularly used large amounts of Lash's Bitters.


Special thanks to Mike Sendek and Pat Arndt for capturing the images of Lash's Bitters and the trade cards.


  1. Cramp, Arthur. Nostrums and quackery. Vol II. Chicago, Illinois: American Medical Association, 1970:741-754.
  2. Macklis, Roger. The great radium scandal. Scientific American 1993; August:94-99.
  3. Fikes, Richard. The Bottle Book: A comprehensive guide to historic, embossed medicine bottles. Salt Lake City, Utah: Pegerine Smith Books, 1987.
  4. Bingham, A. Walker. The snake-oil syndrome: patent medicine advertising, Hanover, Massachusetts: Christopher Publishing House, 1994.
  5. Ring, Carlyn and Sheldon Ray Jr. For bitters only: Up-date and price guide. Privately printed, 1984.
  6. Cramp, Arthur. Nostrums and quackery. Vol III. Chicago, Illinois: American Medical Association, 1970:211.
  7. Porter, William, and Thomas Moyer. Clinical toxicology. In: Tietz textbook of clinical chemistry, 2nd ed, Burtis C Ashwood E, eds. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: W.B. Saunders Company, 1994:1155.
  8. Brunton, Lawrence. Drugs affecting the gastrointestinal function. In: Goodman and Gilman's The pharmacological basis of therapeutics, 8th ed, Gilman A, Rall T, Nies A, Taylor P, eds. New York, New York: Pergamon Press, 1990:914-932.
  9. Young, James Harvey. The toadstool millionaires: a social history of patent medicines in America before federal regulation. Princeton, New Jersey:Princeton University Press, 1961.
  10. Fowler, Gene. Mystic healers & medicine shows, Santa Fe, New Mexico: Ancient City Press, 1997.
  11. Barbee, SJ and LA Constantine. Release of lead from crystal decanters under conditions of normal use. Fd Chem Toxic 1984; 32:285-288.

Some other useful books

Blasi, Betty. A bit about balsams: A chapter in the history of nineteenth century medicine. Louisville, Kentucky: Farley-Goepper Printing Company, 1974.

Kovel Ralph and Terry Kovel. Kovel's Bottle price list, 10th edition. New York, New York: Three Rivers Press, 1997.

Young, James Harvey. American Health Quackery. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992.


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