Also known as Swaim’s Celebrated Panacea this concoction was on sale for at least a century from 1820 until at least the 1920s. The eponymous Swain, William of the ilk, started out as a bookbinder and apocryphally found the recipe for his cure-all in the pages of a book he was binding. Probably, although it is by no means certain, he obtained the recipe from the appropriately named Dr N.J.Quackinboss who had himself obtained the secret from a French apothecary.
Moving from New York to Philadephia Swaim began to market the cure possibly as early as 1811 and certainly by 1820. He obtained permission to administer it to some inmates at a local asylum with beneficial effects and soon gathered impressive testimonials from local physicians. He was then ready to launch it nationwide and, indeed, overseas backed, inevitably, by an extensive advertising campaign which claimed, amongst other things, that the Panacea cured scrofula, mercurial disease, deep-seated syphilis, rheumatism, sores and swellings. Charging upwards of $3 a bottle Swaim became very wealthy and by his death in 1846 had accumulated a net worth of approximately $500,000.
Swaim’s advertising made effective use of imagery and distinctive packaging as well as the advances made in commercial lithography in the 1830s. His hallmark symbol was Hercules killing the Hydra which was plastered on to rectangular bottles by 1825 and on green cylindrical bottles from 1829. Bizarrely his later advertisements featured a picture of a rather gruesome looking Nancy Linton with a bottle of the Panacea by her side. To modern eyes poor Nancy, the face of Swaim’s Panacea, is suffering from advance symptoms of mercury poisoning.
And that goes to the nub of the matter – what was in it? Swaim claimed that the primary ingredients were oil of wintergreen and sarsaparilla, the former giving a pleasant taste and the latter acting as a blood purifier. Both the New York and Philadelphia Medical Societies had by 1828 started investigations into various quack and patent medicines including the Panacea. A detailed analysis of those who had taken the medicine showed that it had no effect on some patients (the lucky ones) but in others a course led to a most violent and alarming bowel complaint and some even died from it. Even more alarmingly, chemical analyses showed traces of mercury. Further analysis in 1831 showed that there were also traces of arsenic. Some batches of the Panacea had mercury, others arsenic. It was Hobson’s choice which poison you were subjected to!
Despite this damning verdict and the withdrawal of hitherto glowing testimonials from medical professionals, the Panacea’s fortunes continued on an upward curve. After Swaim’s death his son, James, took over, the business then passing to Swaim’s son-in-law on James’ death in 1870. In 1900 James Ballard of St Louis took over the Swaim portfolio and despite being fined $30 for misbranding products including the Panacea under the Pure Food and Drugs act of 1906 – astonishingly the adverts were still proclaiming the benefits of the medicine made 90 years earlier – the product was sold well into the 1920s.
Its success pawned a number of imitators, the cheekiest of which was Parker’s Renovating Panacea which features as its logo Hercules after he had killed the Hydra. Timing is everything!