Wendell’s Ambition Pills
If there is anything we have learnt about the world of quackery then the recipe for success is a blend of boundless ambition and fearless advertising. It also helps if you come up with a great name and Wendell’s Ambition Pills, the latest example of egregious quackery to come under our microscope, seems to fit the bill. After all, we all have ambition and whatever it may be, find a way to achieve it. What could be simpler than popping a pill, particularly if it delivers health benefits along the way.
In the late 1800s Ambition Pills were targeted heavily at men – presumably women didn’t have ambitions in those days – and particularly those who were characterised as weak and nervous. Before and after shots are always effective and advertisements would often show a down in the mouth individual on the left hand side, a remarkably spry and happy character on the right and someone midway between in the middle, the clear implication being that a course of Ambition Pills would bring about this remarkable transformation.
There was an element of false modesty behind many of the adverts, to enhance that this was the real McCoy. The manufacturers, the Wendell Pharmacy of Syracuse in New York, it claims, had hesitated to bring this potion to the attention of the general public for fear of it being classed with many of the fraudulent preparations on the market. But any such scruples were soon overcome because a course of these wonder pills would convince anyone that they had a cure for impotency, sleeplessness, enlarged veins and nervous debility. Troublesome dreams, despondency, evil forebodings and aversion to society would all be things of the past.
It was also marketed as a great nerve tonic which would eliminate the feeling of tiredness, morning headaches, poor blood and kidney and liver complaints. Malaria, rheumatism, neuralgia, hysteria, dyspepsia, loss of appetite, constipation and all ailments associated with the nervous system could be combatted by a course of the wonder pills.
What was there not to like? They were available from all authorised pharmacists or by mail order and retailed for as little as 50 cents a box of 42 pills. Refunds were available for dissatisfied customers and, another marketeer’s trick, discounts were available for bulk purchases. Hurry, the adverts urged, because prices were bound to go up.
But were they any good and what was in them? As we have seen before the introduction of a more regulated environment for the sale of medicines introduced in the States in the second decade of the 20th century did much to curtail the activities of quacks and, inevitably, the Ambition Pills soon came under the spotlight. In 1918 the Journal of the American Medical Association published the preliminary findings of a chemical analysis of the pills. They reported that each pill contained a little over a thirtieth of a grain of strychnine – yes strychnine – and a fifth of a grain of ferric oxide together with some pepper, cinnamon, ginger and aloe. Their conclusion was that there was enough strychnine in a box of pills to kill an adult male.
No amount of advertising puffery was enough to rescue Wendell’s Ambition Pills after that damning indictment and they disappeared before even more damage could be done.