Medicinal compounds

Perhaps the habit dated from before the days of the National Health Service, perhaps every house had them, proprietary medicines that would offer miraculous cures at a modest price. Our house had more than most, my mother kept a whole drawer of herbal remedies, obtained by mail order from a company in Bristol. A range of tablets and capsules that were claimed to have unquestioned efficacy.

The compounds that arrived came with claims that would rival the medicinal compound sung about by The Scaffold. The group that included Paul McCartney’s brother, Peter, and Roger McGough, who would become one of England’s leading poets, recorded Lily the Pink, a comedy song which would reach Number One in the charts at Christmas 1968.

The tale of medicinal compound captured the imagination of an eight year old listening  to the radio at that distant Christmas time and more than five decades later it seems one of the most sensible songs ever written. The refrain goes:

We’ll drink a drink, a drink ,
To Lily the Pink, the Pink, the Pink
The saviour of the human race
For she invented, medicinal compound
Most efficacious in every case.

Whilst the Nineteenth Century patent medicine, Lydia Pinkham’s  Vegetable Compound, the inspiration for Lily the Pink, might have been efficacious for some complaints, the 1968 parody is a mocking of the charlatanism behind most of the patent remedies.

Newspaper advertisements claimed wondrous properties for “medicines” that might be listed as appropriate for almost every imaginable human ailment. Sellers of such medicines became known as snake-oil salesmen, quack doctors. Cher’s song Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves includes the lines,

Papa would do whatever he could
preach a little gospel, sell a couple bottles of Doctor Good.

Reading the advertisements now, it is amusing, and, sometimes, confusing that people might have been so credulous. It was not just in the popular press that the advertisements appeared. Inside the front cover of my facsimile 1913 edition of Bradshaw’s Continental Railway Guide, not a book that would have circulated widely among the masses, there is an advertisement for Eno’s Fruit Salt.

To travellers and all leaving home for a change, take a supply of Eno’s with you.

Eno’s ‘Fruit Salt’ prevents any over-acid state of the blood, and should be kept in every bedroom in readiness for any emergency. It is Pleasant, Cooling, Health-giving, Refreshing, and invigorating. You cannot overstate its great value in keeping the blood PURE AND FREE FROM DISEASE.

It is, in fact, Nature’s Remedy, and Unsurpassed.

Any emergency? Keeping the blood pure and free from disease? Could educated, cultured and intelligent people have believed that “Fruit Salt” could heal septicaemia, toxaemia or leukaemia? We might laugh now at the credulity of those whose bathroom cabinets would have been stocked with such cures, but what of the snake-oil and quackery of our own times?

Go online and the quacks are alive and well and still distributing their wares by mail order. In fifty years’ time a new Roger McGough will be able to pen a new version of Lily the Pink.

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2 Responses to Medicinal compounds

  1. Doonhamer says:

    It has all gone the other way. Instead of ingesting stuff that will do you good now there is an ever increasing list of things you should avoid if you want to prolong your miserable life.
    If only Churchill had abstained from booze, tobacco and sugar he would be with us still.

    • Ian says:

      I had an old uncle who died in his late-70s in 1986. He had spent more than sixty years smoking roll-ups and used to say that according to government figures he would have lived to the age of 150 if he hadn’t smoked.

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