“Avoid crowds, coughs and cowards, but fear neither germs nor Germans!”
That’s the sort of helpful social distancing advice you’d find between the pages of the Austin American-Statesman circa 1918, when the Spanish flu pandemic’s chilling effect on city life briefly rivaled the closing days of World War I for prominence in local news. Social gatherings of any kind were banned by the city government for about a month, and the flu — also known as “the grip” or “grippe” — would eventually claim the lives of more than 200 Austinites, a figure that works out to something like 6.6 deaths for every 1,000 citizens based on the city’s population at the time.
By 1918, federal regulation had squashed a lot of the outright quackery of 19th-century drug treatments, but the so-called golden age of patent medicine was still kicking, just barely. That “germs nor Germans” quote up there comes from a newspaper advertorial in November 1918, printed soon after Austin’s lockdown (and World War I) had come to an end — but catching the flu was still a possibility, and the ad’s solution on top of avoiding coughs and cowards was a course of Dr. Pierce’s Pleasant Pellets, a “vegetable pill” supposedly able to flush the body of toxins.
In the practice of medicine and “medicine” in the early 1900s, everyone was absolutely obsessed with their bowels, and many of the era’s remedies including Pierce’s pellets were basically laxatives. This was also the case for actual doctors at the time — the Statesman reprinted an article on “the so-called influenza epidemic” by Chicago physician Dr. Albert J. Croft, and along with endorsements of kidney-damaging pain reliever phenacetin (killed Howard Hughes) and strychnine (kills everybody), Croft advised daily doses of laxatives, and if those didn’t clear you out enough, frequent saline enemas. (Blood-letting was suggested “where necessary.”)
“After a few days, the patient having regained part of his former strength and appetite, I find a meal of rare steak seems to be preferred to any other sort of meat.”
— Dr. Albert J. Croft, American Journal of Clinical Medicine, 1918
But laxatives aren’t fun, and they certainly don’t cure the flu — so let’s dig a little deeper into the ads running alongside the Statesman’s coverage of the pandemic and see what was really making Austinites feel better at the time:
C.I. Hood & Company was one of the largest producers of patent medicines in the country at the time, churning out dozens of remedies from its factory in Lowell, Massachusetts. This included Hood’s Sarsaparilla, a “blood purifier” containing sarsaparilla root, dandelions, and other herbs along with 18 percent alcohol by volume, roughly the strength of a nice fortified wine.
The tonic was advertised in the Statesman during the pandemic as a treatment not for the flu itself, but rather the weakness patients experienced during recovery from the virus — and getting mildly buzzed does make you feel stronger! This approach, common among patent medicines at the time, was likely helpful for avoiding any accusations of unwarranted claims of effectiveness, which might lead to fines from the government regulatory bodies that would eventually become the FDA.
Hayes’ Healing Honey
Though it wasn’t specifically advertised for treating the flu, plenty of Hayes’ Healing Honey was “soothing” Austin’s coughs during the 1918 pandemic, likely due to its active ingredients of morphine, heroin, and chloroform — all washed down with a mild seven percent alcohol content, comparable to that of a refreshing India Pale Ale.
Dr. King’s New Discovery
Dr. King’s New Discovery was advertised as “perfectly safe for the kiddies” and anyone else with a cold or “feeling grippy.” Though it lacked heroin or alcohol, its major ingredients were chloroform, morphine, and pine tar. American investigative journalist Samuel Hopkins Adams described Dr. King’s tonic as such:
“As it is a morphine and chloroform mixture, ‘Dr. King’s New Discovery for Consumption’ is well calculated to strike terror to the doctors or to any other class of profession, except, perhaps, the undertakers.”
— Collier’s Weekly, January 13, 1906
Unlike the other concoctions of the era, Humphreys’ claim to fame was its homeopathic approach — a kind of elevated quackery that, unlike the booze and opioid cocktails of the past, persists in the modern world. Humphreys’ 77 would later be accused of fraudulent medical claims by the FDA under the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, when government scientists tested the product in 1930 and found it consisted mostly of sugar water, along with traces of poisonous arsenic.