In the 1920 horror film “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” the mysterious Dr. Caligari arrives at a carnival with a cabinet whose contents ultimately cause mayhem, madness, and murder.
In our modern-day editorial offices, a series of display cabinets has suddenly arrived in a side corridor—cases whose colorful contents once had much the same effects as the cinematic Dr. Caligari’s cabinet.
The mysterious cabinets contain antique bottles of medicinal magic, including these pre-modern marvels:
- Who needed biologics when you had Yohn’s Rheumatic Elixir, “An Infallible Cure for Rheumatism, Lumbago and Gout”?
- The 18th Amendment probably went down easier with Dr. Fenner’s Golden Relief, containing “Alcohol 65%, Ether 22 minims, Chloroform 5 minims, Capsicum, Turpentine, Ammonia,” and several other Prohibition-relieving compounds.
- Chemoprevention was as simple as a spoonful of Dirigo Bitters and Blood Purifier: “A Preventive of Cancer.”
- And finally, Parke-Davis & Co. discovered what Ponce de Leon futilely scoured Florida to find: “Life-Everlasting,” featuring the apparently immortality-inducing agent Gnaphalium polycephalum.
These historical artifacts actually belong to our corporate cousins who cover the pharmaceutical industry. But on some level, they belong to us all, a bottled legacy of medicine’s sometimes perilous evolution.
The medicine cabinets offer a rare glimpse back into the Valley of the Shadow of Death and Snake Oil. They’re reminders that we haven’t been climbing the mountain of medicinal progress as long as we might think.
In a time when a routine case of acute otitis media practically autogenerates an amoxicillin script, it’s easy to forget that many of our parents lived their childhoods in the deep shadows of a pre-antibiotic Dark Age. It’s hard to remember that the politically disparaged words “government regulation” once weren’t even in the pharmaceutical vocabulary, with painful results for millions. It wasn’t so long ago that our well-meaning physician ancestors chipped away at disease with the pharmaceutical equivalent of stone tools.
At best, those cabinets’ antique contents did little for their users. At worst, they were products from the closing moments of a millennia-long medical era that spawned the phrase “The cure is worse than the disease.”
Medical practice and the drugs upon which it relies have escaped their Dark Ages. From the antibiotic I’m giving my AOM-afflicted 7-year-old to the antiretroviral revolution in HIV treatment, scientifically tested and government-approved pharmaceuticals have helped create a world of health and longevity inconceivable a century ago.
Certainly, its snake-oil ancestors’ mortal sins don’t excuse the shortcomings of today’s pharmaceutical industry. Or those of the industry’s sometimes fallible regulators. But while we work ourselves into a righteous dudgeon over the influence of pharmaceutical industry funding or clinical trial obfuscation, or point fingers over imperfections in federal government oversight, we might want to take a moment to look back down the medicinal trail.
And remember how far we’ve come from the madness of those Caligari-esque medicine cabinets.