A wry view of life for the world-weary

Quacks Pretend To Cure Other Men’s Disorders But Rarely Find A Cure For Their Own – Part Twenty Eight


Dr McMunn’s Elixir of Opium

This latest potion to come under our microscope was at least up-front as to what was in it, or at least up to a point. It was developed in the 1830s after a New York doctor, one John B McMunn, claimed to have made an important discovery in the preparation of opium by adopting a method that separated the noxious elements from the pure opium. Indeed, a key selling point of the elixir was its purity, it being denarcotised and, therefore, safer than laudanum.

The Elixir became a wild-fire seller in the United States after a drug company by the name of A B & D Sands bought the recipe in 1841. According to the advertising puff it was more effective than morphine and its effects were to produce sleep and composure, to allay convulsions and spasmodic action, to relieve pain and irritation, nervous excitement and and morbid irritability of body and mind. Its target market spanned all age groups, from the smallest babe in arm to the most mature adult. What’s not to like?

The dosage instructions were disconcertingly vague. It was recommended that a baby aged a month or less could have between a half and two drops whilst a child up to the age of 6 months might take between 3 and 10 drops. Adults, however, could take between 10 and 60 drops or, alarmingly if the pain and other symptoms were suitably severe, twice or three times that amount mixed with two or three teaspoons of water. To cover themselves further the manufacturers recommended that users should begin with the smallest doses and increase the dosage until the required effects are produced.

As is often the case with the best of quackery the advertisements came complete with glowing testimonials from satisfied users and people of distinction. In 1836 a gentleman  described as an eminent chemist of New York, wrote that “the process is in accordance with well-known chemical laws and that the preparation must contain all the valuable principles of opium, without those which are considered as deleterious and useless”. The adverts concluded with the warning to beware imitations which are spurious and vile and a reminder that a bottle cost 25 cents.

Although the recipe was shrouded in mystery its supposed natural and pure characteristics made it popular with the medical fraternity and it was widely advertised in their journals. However, the patina of respectability began to flake in 1864 when the recipe for the elixir came to light. What was used to purify the opium and remove the narcotines was sulphuric ether, which itself had narcotic properties, was known to create a temporary dependence and a desire to consume more. Good for sales, perhaps, but not so the patients. Indeed, there is no reason to suppose that it was any less addictive than any other opium based product.

A doctor recorded in the early 20th century that a woman who had been using the elixir for 31 years had lost 16 new born babies to its congenital effects. And the dangers of misdiagnosis were ever present. In 1875, for example, it was reported that a 17 month-old boy exhibited symptoms of worms and an old woman recommended that his mother give the child the elixir as it would cause the worms to have a good sleep. The mother gave him 15 to 20 drops every hour. The result was that not only did the worms have a good sleep but the child died, within 12 hours of the last dose.

Greater awareness of its properties and tighter drug standards at the turn of the 20th century meant that the elixir’s days were numbered.


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