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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Reading the Fine Print of Quackery

In the 1870s, druggist Warren Toppan of Lynn, Massachusetts made and sold Calcutta Cholera Mixture.

It must have been somekinda powerful: the bottle is only 3.75" (9.525 cm) tall from base to the top of the lip and held only 3.25 teaspoons of cure. That's okay, huge medical breakthroughs often come in small packages, right? Penicillin: big-time disease cure, small petri dish; aspirin: whopping headache cure, small pill; Calcutta Cholera Mixture: breakthrough cholera cure, small bottle.

Umm, not really.

You've probably never heard of this quack cure. Its maker did not become rich or famous and he did next to nothing to advertise this medicine. This may seem to be extraordinary modesty given that he was claiming to have invented a cure for cholera.

Well, that's what he claimed ... sort of. You have to read (and understand) the small print (admittedly, ALL the print on this tiny bottle is small). Under the name of the medicine we read, "For the Cure of Cholera Morbus, Dysentery, Diarrhoea, Colic, and all Inflammation of the Stomach and Bowels." Cholera and Cholera Morbus are not the same thing; cholera is the epidemic variety and cholera morbus was a term used to describe the non-epidemic family of gastrointestinal diseases whose symptoms resembled cholera. So he wasn't really talking about curing the epidemic type of cholera that people associated with the 1832 global pandemic that originated among the impoverished people in the Bengal region of India. He was only promising relief for the spectrum of gastrointestinal complaints that hit Lynn during late summer through the fall of each year. Yet he purposely called it the Calcutta Cholera Mixture. And he couched his promises in caveats of even tinier type size:
If given in the forming stages of Cholera, it will arrest the progress of the disease.
In other words, if you're too far gone, Toppan's cure can't be blamed. And if you're not too far gone, it really only promises to stop the disease's progress, not knock it out of your system. So at best, the stuff won't let you get worse, unless you are already worse, then tough luck, Charlie. It's what small print was invented for.

Americans watched warily after the first (and worst) cholera pandemic hit the U.S. in 1832 and other scares in 1849 and 1866. But in 1849 John Snow of England demonstrated that cholera was spread through fouled water and many U.S. communities began to tap cleaner water sources and setting up water filtration systems. Lynn had a water pumping and filtering system by 1870, so why was there a need for a medicinal cure in Lynn in the mid-1870s?

Like many cities in the U.S., Lynn, Massachusetts was getting crowded. Its shoe factories required many workers; tenements stacked next to each other, forming three-story urban jungles. Poor immigrants filled the housing and were condescendingly regarded by the upper classes as a necessary evil. Delicate white bejeweled fingers pointed disdainfully at the poor as the source of filth, squalor, and disease. Toppan's Calcutta Cholera Mixture was not just a promised cure of the choleric symptoms that came from contagious gastrointestinal diseases, but also was an implied cure from the filth of the slums spilling over into upscale lives. It was bad enough if you got dysentery or cholera morbus, but even worse that you got their diseases, making you no better than them.

Warren Toppan's Calcutta Cholera Mixture was a cure for physical illness and social downfall. Small bottle, big attitude.

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