Sunday, August 30, 2015


By: Ashley Kath-Bilsky

Ever notice how possible side effect warnings for prescription medications are often worse sounding than the illness? They range from any number of possible side effects to more serious side effects, including death.

Just the other day I saw a TV advertisement about medication for insomnia. Just one possible side effect among a frightening litany of side effects was the inability to move when sleeping or upon waking. In other words, temporary paralysis. On the up side, the patient gets a good night's sleep. Egads! Still, at least we are informed. Even when one picks up a prescription from their local pharmacy, a printout of information about the medication, its use, and possible complications are provided the patient.

But what about people in the past who knew nothing about possible side effects, placing their trust--and their life--in the treatment their physician prescribed. And, if they didn't have a local doctor, they sought traveling medicine shows or believed advertisements in newspapers from fraudulent companies that mass produced 'cures'.

As a writer of historical fiction, everything about a person's life is researched. Sometimes that includes medication and treatment used in the past. Consequently, it really is mind-boggling to think about how illnesses were treated, and the often fatal effects that resulted.

In the 19th century, especially in the American West, settlers were isolated. Living far from civilization, they were forced to rely upon themselves in times of injury and illness. Patent medicines (what we consider over-the-counter medicines) were not readily available. Some people had knowledge about herbs and plants that could be used for medicinal purposes, but not always.

As more people moved west and towns were established, doctors (as well as traveling medicine shows), arrived and brought with them methods of treatment that were often inaccurate and deadly poisonous. Although most frontier doctors spoke against the medicine shows peddling their miracle cures, physicians also prescribed treatment that was toxic and addictive.

For example, it was not uncommon for lead, mercury, and arsenic—all very poisonous—to be dispensed as medicine.

This begs the question; did people know or understand what they were taking? Did no one question why arsenic, widely known by people at the time as a poison to kill rats, was also being prescribed to humans beings?

Guess not, because doctors prescribed arsenic to their patients to treat rheumatism, syphilis, strengthen one’s lungs, and even told women it would help their complexion.

Laird’s Bloom Of Youth and Dr. MacKenzie’s Arsenic Complexion Wafers were just two brands women consumed as a beauty aid.

In truth, they seemed to work from an appearance standpoint. Arsenic made the skin pale by destroying red blood cells. Unfortunately, the side effects from using these wafers (pills) were blindness and death.

Mercury, known as calomel (pictured), was used for any type of inflammatory disease, i.e., cholera and typhoid. At the same time, it was used to treat gastrological problems. Taken too liberally, one experienced mercury poisoning. Side effects for mercury poisoning include neurological problems such as trembling, loss of memory, and disintegration of one’s bones, teeth, and gums.

Perhaps the most common remedies used in the American West were Alcohol and Laudanum, both of which were dispensed and consumed in great abundance. They were also highly addictive.
Understandably, it should come as no surprise, given the poor quality (or lack) of drinking water and the abundance of watering holes (aka 'saloons'), that alcoholism was a big problem in the Old West, particularly among men. Cowboys, miners, gamblers, ranchers, railroad workers, and just about any man that worked hard in those days would visit the local saloon and quench their thirst with whiskey, or some other form of alcohol.

Ironically, the fact many men drank themselves into a stupor was of little consequence. After all, whiskey was not only considered the beverage of choice, but also viewed as a cure for just about anything. From heart palpitations, dropsy, epilepsy and kidney disease to chills, stomach ailments, and even rabies.

Physicians prescribed whiskey to patients with consumption. Forts dispensed three grains of quinine in an ounce of whiskey on a daily basis to soldiers as a preventative against malaria. The use of whiskey as a painkiller, antiseptic and disinfectant has also been documented—-especially on the battlefield. Considering the believed miraculous benefits of whiskey, as heralded during the 19th century, it shouldn't be surprising that whiskey was also mixed with castor oil to make a shampoo.

Although heavy drinking by men, even to the point of drunkenness, was acceptable at the time, a woman’s reputation would be destroyed if she were to be seen inebriated, let alone drinking in public. This is not to say that women did not drink alcohol. They might take a small shot of whiskey to relieve pain, but more often than not they were prescribed medicines that contained a high content of alcohol. One such drinkable medication was laudanum, basically a mixture of opium and alcohol.

Also called ‘tincture of opium’, laudanum was used primarily as a sedative and painkiller, often prescribed for headaches, toothaches, and aches and pains. Its extensive use among women can be attributed to the fact it was the medicine of choice for female problems—which also explains why so many women became addicted to it.

Girls as young as fourteen were prescribed laudanum. Even infants were spoon fed laudanum. Physicians cited its benefits as not only helping to calm nerves and quiet the disposition, it was prescribed as an aid for childbirth, menstruation and menopause. If one was not careful, taken in large doses, it caused unconsciousness. Many women, particularly prostitutes, used laudanum to commit suicide.

Because of its addictive properties, laudanum use was extremely dangerous. A person could build up a resistance and, therefore, need a larger dose. The same can be said with regard to alcohol use, particulary in the 19th century.

Forgetting the medicinal effects that were falsely attributed to alcohol, saloon keepers encouraged their patrons to drink and gamble. The two went hand-in-hand. The more someone drank, the more they gambled. Even if a man drank a moderate amount, their judgment could be affected and their behavior might become argumentative and excitable. One can well imagine the number of alcohol induced gunfights that occurred. And since alcohol affects the nervous system as a depressant, if one drinks too much they could become incoherent and be rendered unconscious.

Because drinking was so prevalent, alcohol-related problems increased...and not just at saloons. Soldiers at forts often developed problems with drinking, particularly during the Indian Wars. It became so serious an issue, in fact, that an officer found drunk on duty was subject to court-martial or a reduction in rank; enlisted men were fined and/or punished.

It is interesting to note that as much as we might be fascinated about the American West and the struggles pioneers faced to survive, we often overlook the subversive dangers they faced -- often doing something they believed would not harm but help them live longer lives.

Thank you for stopping by today, and I hope you found this post interesting and informative. Just remember, the next time you listen to all those side effect disclosures for medicines today, as frightening as they can be, at least you are being told ahead of time. ~ AKB


  1. If you read old newspaper ads, you become alarmed. But danger still exists if the doctor is not comprehensive. My mom had a friend who had to have a blood transfusion about every six weeks. Her doctor didn't know why. We suggested she change doctors for a second opinion but she wouldn't. When she moved near her daughter, she had to change doctors and learned that the popular medicine she took for arthritis caused internal bleeding.

    1. So frightening, Caroline. I listen carefully to all the side effects of medicine. As you know, I am very wary of prescriptions these days -- especially when doctors prescribe numerous meds - each with potentially serious side effects. Combined together theses meds are more frightening. Bottom line, we need to really look at what we are taking, question its interaction with other meds -- even herbal meds.

  2. Excellent post. Oh, if they knew then what we know now..... Then again, how many times to we see ads for the latest and greatest, FDA-approved medical miracle, only to see the T.V. ads about 5-10 years later inviting those who have suffered from the use to participate in a tort lawsuit.

    Robyn Echols w/a Zina Abbott

    1. Thanks, Robyn. And yes, you are spot on with all these peopl filing Class Action suits against meds that cause desth, organ damage, or cancer related problems. It is good we have an awareness of what a medication does and its side effects, but personally when I hear side effects, I would rather not take anyrhing -- especially for insomnia. Well, maybe some chamomile tea. Just my opinion.

    2. Egads! Sorry for spelling errors. Clearly, I cannot type on my phone. Even with the preview I cannot see the tiny tyoe. LOL. Will reply to other comments later on my computer. But thanks everyone for your great comments!

  3. Poisonous and dangerous drugs have continued through history. I remember when amphetamines ("speed" or "meth") were liberally prescribed by doctors for weight loss in the 60's and 70's before they were banned. My mother had rheumatic heart disease and was prescribed a medication containing mercury back in the mid 1950's. One day we couldn't wake her up. She kept falling asleep and acted confused. After she was hospitalized, they ran tests and that's when they discovered the mercury from her medication had accumulated in her system and poisoned her. Even today, veterinarians treat extreme heart worm disease in dogs with an arsenic based medication--enough to kill the heartworms, but hopefully, not the dog. Chemo therapy is another poisonous medical treatment that kills cancer cells, but not the patient. I also remember paregoric, a liquid sedative that could be purchased over the counter mothers were giving their babies with colic to make them sleep. Later, they discovered paregoric was highly addictive and quit selling it over the counter. I'm really not certain if they even make it any more. So, having said that, I can understand why people in the isolated areas of the old west would take crazy medicines that were hazardous to their health. Personally, I would have prescribed to the liquor treatment. LOL

    1. Terrifying ordeal for your mother and your family, Sarah J. No doubt the poisonous meds given in the past contributed to the high mortality rate - especially among children. Thank goodness there were tests to determine the mercury poisoning with your mom. Still, you would think her doctor was monitoring the levels. Scary. I just heard in a commercial last night they added yet another side effect to that insomnia med. This time, "walking, eating, driving when awake and not remembering it" was added. I have had bouts of insomnia but no way would I take anything like this. Just goes to show that although we do, by law, receive side effect warnings, we really have to be aware of what we are putting in our bodies and investigate natural remedies. Thanks for your comment.

  4. Our ancestors learned by trial and error. Those who used or dispensed these in abundance surely did not know the side effects or didn't care. A similar example would be early man who used certain plants for various reasons...some a kind of medical treatment, some a hallucinogenic. I guess give enough time, these early peoples learned which might kill a person and which might cure. The Medicine Man. The local herbalist who most often was a woman. I can recall even in my grandmother's day, a person with severe rheumatism and arthritis would use think not to drink, but maybe a topical ointment.
    This was a wonderful post...very informative and important to those of us who write historical romance.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Celia. Kerosense as a topical ointment? Never heard of that. Wow. Each generation learns something new, and I can understand the desperation people in the past must have had to find a cure, ease pain, etc. Sad, and also alarming to realize people are willing even today to seek a quick "cure" without really understanding long term effects and side effects.

  5. Loved this post, Ashley. We often discuss and question how things become part of our everyday life. I mean, who invents them or figures out how they can work and what for. We have had some very brave people, or maybe desperate, who try and come up with new ideas.

    1. Thank you, Paisley. Your comment made me think of those who did save lives and pioneer cures like Jonas Salk who invented the polio vaccine. Although there are still frightening illnesses and medicines, we live in a time where people live longer and have more hope of survival from sicknesses that killed them long ago. Perhaps we should focus on those who found real cures. Here is a quote by Jonas Salk. "There is hope in dreams, imagination, and the courage of those who wish to make those dreams a reality."


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