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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 Forty

L0031710 Ephemera Collection: QV: Advertising: 1850-1 Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Ephemera Collection. QV: Advertising: 1850-1920: 2. 'Tis the genuine. [Leaflet?] St. Louis: Antikamnia Co., Inc. [1890's?] Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Frank A Ruf and the Antikamnia Chemical Company

If nothing else, many of us aspire to a pain-free existence and where there is pain, there is an opportunity for exponents of quackery to exploit. The Antikamnia Chemical Company – the name is a cod Greek word meaning opposed to pain – was founded in the late 1880s and registered in 1890 by a couple of drug store owners in St Louis, Missouri.

The little white tablets they produced were described in their adverts as “little short of an inspiration”. Their five grain Antikamnia and Codeine tablets contained “4.5 grams of Antikamnia and 0.5 of a gram of Sulphate Codeine” and “one or two tablets [should be taken] every two or three hours or as indications may require”. Users were given helpful instructions, “also advisable to administer with a little water, diluted whisky, wine or hot toddy”. And what was it supposed to cure? The advert, naturally, gave the answer, “this combination is particularly useful in La Grippe, Influenza and all Grippal Conditions, Pneumonia, Bronchitis, Deep Seated Coughs, Neuroses of the Larynx etc, etc”. It was also handy to be taken as a preventative before participating in sports or even going out shopping.

Although the medicine was never patented and wasn’t a prescription drug, the Company marketed it aggressively through direct mailing and promotional products to doctors in the hope that they would be persuaded to recommend it to their patients. In many ways they were the forerunners of junk mail marketeers. Their objective was to get their name known to as wide an audience as possible and it worked. When Ruf died in 1923, his estate was worth more than $2 million.

One of the most bizarre promotional products that went out in Antikamnia’s name was a series of limited edition calendars for the years 1897 through to 1901 produced by a St Louis chemist and part-time artist, Louis Crusius. They feature skeletons in a wide range of fantastic and comical poses and dressed, apart from a usually grinning skull, in everyday clothing. To pick just three at random, one featured a newsboy dressed in rags hawking newspapers, another a skeleton wearing a top hat with a clover leaf, green sash and smoking a pipe and a third with a beer stein and pipe. On the reverse of the calendar page was a description of the products available and the conditions which they were effective against. These calendars routinely fetch a good price on e-bay and in antique shops.

Unfortunately, though, the tablets which were based on a coal-tar derivative, Acetanilide, had a potentially lethal side-effect. They could cause cyanosis which because of a lack of oxygen could turn the taker’s extremities blue. There were reports of deaths as a result of taking Antikamnia as early as 1891 and the California State Journal of Medicine in 1907 described a woman who had taken the pills as “practically without pulse, cyanosed, with shallow breathing and a leaky skin”.

The passing of the Pure Food and Drug Act soon put an end to Ruf’s business. In 1910 US officials seized a container of Antikamnia and prosecuted its manufacturers for not stating that the drug was an acetanilid derivative, a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. Shortly afterwards, the Company collapsed.

Leaving aside the dangerous and potentially lethal side-effects, Ruf may have been on to something. Half a century later Julius Axelrod discovered that what acetanilide produces when metabolised is paracetamol, something we pop with gay abandon today. So, Antikamnia may just have been effective as a pain-killer.

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