Abstract: Telling Tales about Secret Remedies: the Case of Chlorodyne

[This is the abstract of a paper I gave at Working with Nineteenth-Century Medical and Health Periodicals, St Anne’s, Oxford, 30 May 2015. The conference website is here and the tweets have been storified here. I’m planning on posting my paper here soon]

Telling Tales about Secret Remedies: the Case of Chlorodyne

In February 1892 two undercover police officers entered John Thistlewood Davenport’s pharmacy and bought a dozen bottles of chlorodyne. Two months later, Davenport was prosecuted at Bow Street Magistrate’s Court for selling poison. Davenport claimed that chlorodyne was exempted from the Pharmacy Act as, for the purposes of the Act, proprietary medicines were considered patent medicines. The Magistrate, however, disagreed, insisting that a patent medicine must be patented and fined Davenport a symbolic five pounds and five guineas costs.

The prosecution was arranged by Ernest Hart, editor of the British Medical Journal, and was the culmination of a long campaign to close the loophole under which controlled substances, particularly opium, were freely sold despite the strictures of the Pharmacy Act. Patent medicines, which declared their constitution in the process of gaining legal protection as intellectual property, had been exempted when the Act was passed. Proprietary medicines, however, kept their ingredients secret thus avoiding the disclosure demanded under patent law. For Hart and his colleagues, it was this secrecy that made proprietary medicines so dangerous.

This paper tells the tale of chlorodyne. A vital part of the economy that supported the vibrant market for periodicals, advertisements for proprietary medicines like chlorodyne were the public face of secretive entities. By prosecuting its manufacturers, Hart and the BMJ asserted their right to tell chlorodyne’s secret, subjecting it to legal control.