Dr Pierce’s Favourite Prescription
One of America’s greatest practitioners of the ignoble art of quackery was one Ray Vaughn Pierce (1840 – 1914) who operated from Buffalo in New York state. So prolific was he and so varied were his panaceas and devices that he may well keep me gainfully occupied for some time. But we have to start somewhere and where better, perhaps, than a cure targeted at the weaker sex. Indeed, the advertising for the so-called Favourite Prescription specifically referred to “weak women”.
Pierce was not bashful in proclaiming the benefits of the Favourite. Describing it as “a tonic nervine” which “quiets nervous irritation” and “strengthens the enfeebled nervous system, restoring it to healthful vigour”. It was particularly helpful with women’s problems; “in all diseases involving the female reproductive organs, with which there is usually associated an irritable condition of the nervous system, it is unsurpassed as a remedy”. There was more – it was a “uterine and general tonic of great excellence” – naturally – and “an efficient remedy in cases requiring medicine to regulate the menstrual function”. If that was not enough, Pierce topped it off with a further boast, “in all cases of debility, the Favourite Prescription tranquillises the nerves, tones up the organs, and increases their vigour, and strengthens the system”.
As well as exhibiting the quack’s natural tendency towards bombast, Pierce was also coy as to what was in this magic potion. The nearest he got was to suggest that it was “derived exclusively from the vegetable kingdom”. So that’s all right then. Perhaps more alarming was an advert in 1902 which was targeted at mothers whose daughters were about to enter puberty. Naturally, Dr Pierce’s Favourite Prescription could deal with everything that could beset a teenage girl but what was troubling was the final sentence, “there is no alcohol in Favourite Prescription and it is entirely free from opium”. Why did he feel it necessary to make this point?
It may well because of a bit of a run in Pierce had with the Ladies Home Journal. The organ had the audacity to subject the potion to chemical analysis. They claimed that it contained savin, cinchona, agaric, cinnamon, water, acacia, sugar, digitalis, opium, oil star anise and alcohol. Pierce, by now a member of the House of Representatives, vigorously denied the claim and sued the Journal for $200,000, a case he won when a further analysis revealed the absence of opium and alcohol. It is thought, though, that the crafty quack had simply omitted the offending ingredients between the initial article and the court case. It may be that the presence of opium and alcohol contributed to the potion’s phenomenal success.
Pierce had form in using narcotics. His Golden Medical Discovery which was advertised to give ”men an appetite like a cowboy’s and the digestion of an ostrich” – the mind boggles – contained quinine, opium and alcohol. Even if these ingredients weren’t ever present, and a descendent who has Pierce’s recipe book claims they were, there was a couple of troubling herbal ingredients. Acacia was known to dampen sexual appetite and response while savin was known since Roman times to induce menstruation. Dosed up with this, the daughter of the house would, unknowingly, be well protected against any advances from the lads of the neighbourhood.