Hunt’s Remedy – William E Clarke
Whatever happened to dropsy? It first made its appearance in literature in Horace’s Odes (Carmina 2.2 13 – 16) and was used by the poet as a metaphor for avarice. 18th and 19th century literature is peppered by references to people suffering from dropsy but it seems to have gone out of fashion. Perhaps that’s because it is now known as oedema and is a condition whereby excess fluid accumulates below the surface of the skin, particularly in the legs and ankles, causing inflammation. An obstruction in the blood vessel seems to cause it and it can be treated by locating and treating the obstacle.
Anyone suffering from dropsy would be glad of some form of respite and a popular remedy in the second half of the 19th century was Hunt’s Remedy. It was not just restricted to the cure of dropsy. According to the accompanying adverts it was the “great Kidney Medicine that cures dropsy and all diseases of the kidney, bladder and urinary organs – never known to fail”. When the medicine came into the hands of a chemist from Providence, Rhode Island, William E Clarke, it was promoted using some really wonderful trade cards showing a healthy male using a bottle of the said potion to wrestle a skeleton accompanied by a scythe. There was no doubting the message of this powerful image.
The adverts went on to say that “by the use of Hunt’s Remedy the Stomach and Bowels will speedily regain their strength and the blood will be perfectly purified”. In case you were concerned what was in it, the advert went on to reassure you that it “is purely vegetable and meets a want never before furnished to the public and the utmost reliance may be placed on it”. The potion came in two sizes – a small embossed bottle, known as Trial Size, retailing for 75 cents and a larger one which would set you back $1.25. The bottles were aqua in colour. One of Clarke’s agents, a Mr W B Blanding, sold 33,120 bottles over the course of two years and it was extremely popular throughout New England. But that was not the limit of its sales penetration. “The Remedy is known throughout the United States and Canada and in foreign countries”.
The story went that the key ingredient of the potion was a root which grew in the pastures and roadsides of the United States and was used by the Dutch colonists for medicinal purposes. The recipe was passed to a number of physicians, one of whom used it to cure a Mr Hunt of Manhattan who, suffering from dropsy, took it for a year and saw that “his bloated flesh was reduced and his vigour restored”. Rather like Victor Kiam, he was so enamoured with the drug that he bought up the manufacturing rights and upon his death these were acquired by William Clarke in 1872.
The Remedy was widely available until the turn of the 20th century when the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act put an end to its rather extravagant claims. Whether it was effective was unclear. Its main ingredient, according to the Medical Record of 19th July 1884, was apocynum cannabium or dogbane which was used by Native American tribes to treat a wide variety of complaints such as rheumatism, coughs, pox, whooping cough, asthma and internal parasites. Whether it touched the kidneys or dropsy is unclear. However, the quality of the advertising images meant it has a special place in the annals of quackery.