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Selling Health

Selling medicines was a highly competitive business. As well as the drugs which apothecaries made on demand for sick people, mass-produced ‘proprietary medicines’ were big business.

Famous learned physicians and wandering ‘mountebanks’ — itinerant medicine sellers — alike sold these remedies. In the process, they helped create some of the fundamental elements of modern commerce, such as branding and newspaper advertising.


Did These Medicines Work?

It is very difficult to tell if a medicine treats an illness. Modern pharmaceutical companies spend millions of pounds trying out drugs. They use complex procedures which compare the effect of the drug with what happens if you give a ‘placebo’ to sick people instead - a placebo looks like the drug but is not itself active in the body. Before these methods were developed, researchers relied on experience, trial and error, and their theories of how the body worked. Some of the medicines they used are still important today, others seem to have had no effect, and some were even harmful.