Jan 28 2010

Mark Twain on Patent Medicine

Mark Twain would have made an excellent blogger. The man had a wit and eloquence difficult to match, and he was not afraid to use his skills. Fortunately, some of his writing can be repurposed for blogging – Letters of Note brings us a letter written by Twain in November of 1905 to the seller of a patent medicine that had just attempted to sell his wares to Twain.

The letter shows that Twain was savvy regarding the nature of patent medicines – they were a scam, born of the carnival barker tradition. Anyone unhindered by ethics could put whatever they wanted into a bottle, usually cutting it with some alcohol or other such substance, and then make whatever health claims they wished for their concoction. The FDA put an end to the patent medicine era, but now we are in the middle of a resurgence of patent medicine scams. The only thing that has changed is the name – now they are called “supplements”. The FDA has been weakened to allow anyone to put just about whatever they want in a bottle (as long as it is not already classified as a drug) and make whatever health claims they want for it (as long as they are the slightest bit clever in their wording – phrasing the claims as “structure/function” claims, rather than disease claims).

The new patent medicine era is also ignited by the internet, and is ruled by a new breed of charlatans. They use terms like “natural” and their nostrums invariably are claimed to “boost the immune system.” And they have tapped into the angst of modern society, seeing conspiracies everywhere, and sowing distrust in government and the institutions of science.

But when you strip it away – they might as well be hawking literal snake oil out of the back of a wagon.

It is fun to see that the skeptics of the time did not pull their punches when taking on such snake-oil salesmen. Here is the transcript of Twain’s letter:

Nov. 20. 1905

J. H. Todd
1212 Webster St.
San Francisco, Cal.

Dear Sir,

Your letter is an insoluble puzzle to me. The handwriting is good and exhibits considerable character, and there are even traces of intelligence in what you say, yet the letter and the accompanying advertisements profess to be the work of the same hand. The person who wrote the advertisements is without doubt the most ignorant person now alive on the planet; also without doubt he is an idiot, an idiot of the 33rd degree, and scion of an ancestral procession of idiots stretching back to the Missing Link. It puzzles me to make out how the same hand could have constructed your letter and your advertisements. Puzzles fret me, puzzles annoy me, puzzles exasperate me; and always, for a moment, they arouse in me an unkind state of mind toward the person who has puzzled me. A few moments from now my resentment will have faded and passed and I shall probably even be praying for you; but while there is yet time I hasten to wish that you may take a dose of your own poison by mistake, and enter swiftly into the damnation which you and all other patent medicine assassins have so remorselessly earned and do so richly deserve.

Adieu, adieu, adieu!

Mark Twain

“Patent medicine assassins” – I like that. Sure, this is little more than a dismissive rant, but I think Twain is justified in thinking that is all they deserved. He was not a physician testifying before Congress. He was a keen observer of people and society, and I think he captured the essence of the patent-medicine salesmen of his time, and all time.

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