Proprietary Medicines

A detailed examination of the production, retailing and consumption of proprietary medicines in England from the period of the English Civil War to the mid-eighteenth century.

Aims of the Project

This project is a detailed examination of the production, retailing and consumption of proprietary medicines in England from the period of the English Civil War to the mid-eighteenth century. The only previous full-length study of this major subject is Roy Porter's Health for Sale: Quackery in England, 1650-1850 (1989); when this was republished in 2000 Porter observed that 'during the last decade ... there has been surprisingly little work published on British quack medicine in the long eighteenth century'. He also acknowledged in his conclusion that his study had not 'delved into the prosopography of the quacks, or their business history, or the pharmacological and therapeutic aspects of their activities. These are fascinating fields, which largely remain to be researched.' [Porter (2000), 10, 207.]

Taking a less pejorative view of 'quack' culture, this project aims to fulfil this imbalance and offer a major re-evaluation of proprietary medicines in this period, exploring in detail their place in English commercial culture and popular society in the period c. 1660-1740. The project will be further informed by recent developments in British economic history, which over the past two decades has seen an acceleration of research into the study both of central issues such as growth, distribution and consumption, and the interconnections between these issues, and narrower social, demographic and cultural themes. This development will be of pivotal importance to this project, as my initial research with Dr Patrick Wallis into Anthony Daffy's later 17th-century London business in 'Elixir Salutis' has already revealed [see below]. This has clearly shown that the development of proprietary medicines must be seen to have been as much about business as it was about health.

It is clear that the period c. 1640-1740 was significant in the broadening and deepening of commercial medicine and pharmacy as part of the wider expansion of English consumer society. These decades saw a vast increase in the population of London and the emergence of England as a major rather than peripheral European power. Indeed, the term 'consumer revolution' has frequently been used by economic historians to describe this period, with its 'intellectual origins' to be found in the 1690s. [See McKendrick, Brewer and Plumb (1982), 1, 13.] With this growth in economic and political importance, based on the emergence and successful exploitation of major trade markets in the Americas and the Far East and the development of capitalist institutions in London, there emerged in England an increasingly affluent, commercial and sophisticated domestic market for a wide range of luxury goods.

It appears that proprietary medicines may be included amongst these 'luxury' items, and that fashion played a role in their sale and consumption. As John Styles has recently observed, proprietary medicines were probably the earliest extensively marketed branded products; furthermore, through the widespread use of handbills and newspaper adverts they were 'undoubtedly those that became most familiar to late-seventeenth- and eighteenth-century consumers' [Styles (2000), 148-9]. Advertising thus became an important tool in the success or failure of individual proprietary medicines: as William Newman shows, notwithstanding his skills as a chymist and manufacturer of medicines, it was the fact of George Starkey's limitations as a promoter of his wares that caused him to lose out in his dispute with his London rival, the empiric Lionel Lockyer. [Newman (1994), 197-202.]

The first aim of this project, therefore, will be to establish a clear understanding of the businesses of a number of selected proprietary medicine manufacturers, and establish the nature of - and reasons for - their relative success or failure. This prosopographical study will be founded on my initial examination of the business of a single proprietary medicine producer, Anthony Daffy, which led up to this research proposal [see below]. This three month period of Wellcome-funded research linked Daffy to various business practices in Britain, Europe and the colonies, investigated his speculations and investments, and established (so far as was possible) his network of business contacts based on friends, family and religious connections, both at home and abroad.

The prosopographical investigation to be carried out in this advanced project will be supplemented by a regional survey, investigating so far as is possible the sale, market penetration and use of these proprietary medicines in both the capital and various provincial markets. Building on our research into Daffy's business networks, this new project will thus examine the social identity of proprietary medicine manufacturers, including their personal backgrounds, how they entered the trade, and how their businesses were developed and passed between generations; it will analyse the commercial and spatial networks through which their medicines were manufactured and distributed, by a breakdown of producer's products, their advertising material and, where possible, their known markets and users, both at home and abroad; it will explore the links between London and provincial marketplaces, and the importance of London as a centre of proprietary medicine manufacture, and for trade networks which extended outwards to continental Europe and the emergent colonies; it will investigate the position of proprietary medicines in broader commercial culture, and question their significance as possible 'luxury' goods.

By developing a number of focused biographical case studies, the exact nature of the relationships and distinctions between proprietary and patent medicine manufacturers, chemists, apothecaries and other medical practitioners (as well as regulators such as the Royal College of Physicians) will be examined. Despite their shady associations with quackery and mountebanks, proprietary medicines were widely used throughout all levels of society during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries (the relatively high price of some indicates a wealthy clientele), and their producers established good reputations and, in some cases (e.g. Lockyer), considerable fortunes.

Furthermore, with the increasingly positive reception of Paracelsian and Helmontian ideas of medicine during the Commonwealth era the intellectual culture was ripe for changing attitudes to pharmacy. Influential writers such as Robert Boyle and others in the Hartlib circle encouraged the role of chemistry and botany (which brought new 'simples' to light from the New World) in the production of new medicines, and strongly advocated a role for non-practitioners in the manufacture and use of new remedies. This was coupled by the rising demand by medical reformers such as Noah Biggs and William Walwyn that medical practice (particularly in London) should be open to all [Wear (1998), IX.30.]. The cost of different types of medicines and their availability to rich and poor customers was a recurrent concern for Boyle, and issues of pricing, competition, accessibility and control over the manufacture and distribution of medicine and health care are all issues of clear importance in our understanding of the early modern English medical marketplace. They are concerns that will be addressed throughout the course of this project.

Proprietary medicines and their makers continue to be considered within the circle of 'quack culture'. I will question the fairness of this interpretation. In Some Considerations Touching the Usefulnesse of Experimental Naturall Philosophy (1663) Robert Boyle advocated the use of 'Lady Kent's Powder', but carefully noted that he was 'not so much a Mountebank' as to claim that any medicine (proprietary or otherwise) would work in every case against a particular disease: nevertheless he did not dismiss outright the alchemists' dream of 'the Universal Medicine'. [Hunter & Davis (1999-2000), 3.531, 3.473, 3.382.] The careers of Boyle's sometime assistant Ambrose Godfrey and that of the former apothecary's apprentice Robert Talbor, whose experiments with quinine (commonly known as 'Jesuit's bark') from South America to treat malaria in Essex in the 1670s provided the basis for his successful medicine, 'Talbor's Wonderful Secret', indicate some of the ambiguities in understanding the historical importance of proprietary medicines and their makers. [See Richmond, Stevenson, Turton (2003).] As Dr Everard Maynwaring, a supporter of the failed attempt to found a Society of Chemical Physicians, declared in 1670, it was through pharmacopœia that 'Physick did first spring forth ... and by this means, and this way onely, must we expect its perfection and accomplishment' [Maynwaring (1670), 4]. Significantly given Maynwaring's promotion of pharmacopœia, Maehle (1999) has recently highlighted the role certain proprietary medicines played in the emergence of pharmacology in the eighteenth century. This project will place their importance on firmer historical footings.

Furthermore, respectable society physicians such Hans Sloane and John Radcliffe were not above trading on their reputations as physicians, and produced and promoted branded medicines. In Sloane's case this took the form of drinking chocolate; other exotic 'luxury' goods such as tea, coffee and tobacco were all promoted for their supposed health-giving effects, and as medicinal products may be considered within the same broad category of proprietary medicines. Users for many of these medicines also came from respectable classes - as the prices often appear to indicate. Rogers' Oils, the proprietary gout medicine promoted by Dr William Stukeley in the 1730s, were used by a number of men of wealth and rank, including Pitt and Walpole, as Porter and Rousseau (1998) have noted.

Perhaps ironically, it also appears that there was a causal link between growing wealth and the demand for medicines in a culture which, as historians have shown, was by the early eighteenth century increasingly suffering from hypochondriacal nervous disorders, potentially linked to the increasing consumption of 'exotic' goods such as sugar, coffee, tea, tobacco and opium, as well as to other lifestyle changes associated with economic growth. Dr Stukeley was not alone in observing in 1722 that 'Our leaving the country for cities and great towns, coffeehouses and domestic track of business, our sedate life and excesses together, have prepar'd a plentiful harvest for these disorders.' [Stukeley (1722), 73.] Proprietary medicines thus appear to have been locked into a loop of influences founded on commercialisation, luxury and health/ill-health, and the final part of this project will examine this socio-cultural link and the interrelationship between early modern society and the need for and use of proprietary medicines, thus placing them firmly within the contexts of the period.

Each of the three sections of the project are thus closely interlinked, and together will provide a fuller understanding of the developing medical marketplace in England in this period.                                                         

Work Leading Up to the Project

The principal work leading up to this project proposal was undertaken by Dr Patrick Wallis and Dr David Haycock at the University of Nottingham during a three-month Wellcome Research Fellowship in the Summer and Autumn of 2003. This focused on the transcription, annotation and critical study of the National Archive's manuscript account book of the late seventeenth-century London proprietary medicine seller Anthony Daffy, principal maker and seller of 'Elixir Salutis', or 'Daffy's Elixir' as it became popularly known for over two centuries. The completed work is to be published in 2005 as supplement 25 in the Wellcome Trust's journal series Medical History.

This study of Daffy's business networks revealed some of the ambiguities in current interpretations of proprietary medicines in late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century England, and the opportunities for further research. Daffy's Elixir was sold through a complex network of agents, stretching throughout the British Isles and abroad into Europe, North America, and the East and West Indies. As well as trading in his Elixir, Daffy bought and sold tobacco, sugar, cotton, and other imported goods, conducting a complex exchange of goods. Daffy's business investments and financial success demonstrates the significance of proprietary medicines and other medical products in the growth in British commercial enterprise and trade in this period. During the project, through detailed research using a wide range of primary sources, we were able to uncover information on many of the individuals involved with Daffy's business, and we demonstrated the potential of tracing distribution and retail networks through manuscript and printed materials. Primary sources such as the autobiography of the grocer William Stout of Lancaster and town histories provided further information on medical retailing in the period.

My work prior to this project has included lengthy and detailed studies of the culture
of medicine and disease through this period. My monograph on Dr Stukeley was published in 2002, based on research undertaken under the supervision of Prof. Michael Hunter. My 3-year Leverhulme Fellowship working with Professor George S. Rousseau explored the cultural aspects of disease through this period, whilst during my recent Ahmanson-Getty Research Fellowship at the Clark Memorial Library, UCLA, I investigated the role played by alchemical/chemical medicine in the mid to late seventeenth century, the quest for an 'Elixir of Life', and the potential of 'restoring' human lifespans to the near thousand years of the Biblical patriarchs and even to the lost immortality of Adam.



Important works reflecting on the history of proprietary medicines in early modern England include:

  • Juanita Burnby, A Study of the English Apothecary from 1660 to 1760 (London: Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, 1983);
  • Harold J. Cook, The Decline of the Old Medical Regime in Stuart London (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986);
  • Harold J. Cook, Trials of an Ordinary Doctor: James Groenevelt in Seventeenth-Century London (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994);
  • Jordan Goodman, 'Excitantia, Or, How Enlightenment Europe Took to Soft Drugs', in Jordan Goodman, Paul E. Lovejoy and Andrew Sherratt (eds.), Consuming Habits: Drugs in History and Anthropology (London: Routledge, 1995), 126-47;
  • B. Holmstedt and G. Liljestrand (eds.), Readings in Pharmacology (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1963);
  • Michael Hunter, 'Boyle versus the Galenists: A Suppressed Critique of Seventeenth-Century Medical Practice and its Significance', in Michael Hunter, Robert Boyle (1627-91): Scrupulosity and Science (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2000);
  • Mark Jenner, 'Quackery and Enthusiasm, or Why Drinking Water Cured the Plague', in Ole Peter Grell & Andrew Cunningham (eds), Religio Medici: Medicine in Seventeenth-Century England (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1996), 313-39;
  • Andreas-Holger Maehle, Drugs on Trial: Experimental Pharmacology and Therapeutic Innovation in the Eighteenth Century (Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi B. V., 1999);
  • William R. Newman and Lawrence Principe, Alchemy Tried in the Fire: Starkey, Boyle and the Fate of Helmontian Chymistry (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2002);
  • Roy Porter, Quacks: Fakers and Charlatans in English Medicine (Stroud: Tempus Publishing: 2000): first published in 1989 by Manchester University Press as Health for Sale: Quackery in England, 1650-1850; Roy Porter and G. S. Rousseau, Gout: The Patrician Malady (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998);
  • F. N. L. Poynter (ed.), The Evolution of Pharmacy in Britain (London: Pitman Medical, 1965);
  • L. Richmond, J. Stevenson, A. Turton (eds.), The Pharmaceutical Industry: A Guide to Historical Records (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2003);
  • C. J. S. Thompson, The Quacks of Old London (London: Brentano's, 1928);
    Andrew Wear, Health and Healing in Early Modern England (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 1998);
  • Charles Webster, The Great Instauration: Science, Medicine and Reform, 1626-1660. (London: Gerald Duckworth, 1975).

Recent relevant work on business history and the early modern 'commercial revolution' in Britain include:

  • Maxine Berg and Elizabeth Eger (eds.), Luxury in the Eighteenth Century: Debates, Desires and Delectable Goods (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003);
  • John Brewer and Roy Porter (eds.), Consumption and the World of Goods (London: Routledge, 1993);
  • Richard Grassby, The Business Community of Seventeenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995);
  • Perry Gauci, The Politics of Trade: The Overseas Merchants in State and Society, 1660-1720 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001);
  • N. McKendrick, J. Brewer, J. H. Plumb, The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England (London: Europa Publications, 1982);
  • J. Styles, 'Product Innovation in Early Modern London', Past and Present, 168 (2000), 124-69; Lorna Weatherill, Consumer Behaviour and Material Culture in Britain, 1660-1760 (London: Routledge. 2nd edn, 1996).

Other works cited:

  • Michael Hunter & Edward B. Davis (eds.),
  • The Works of Robert Boyle (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000);
  • Everard Maynwaringe, The Pharmacopœian Physician's Repository (London, 1670);
  • William R. Newman, Gehennical Fire: The Lives of George Starkey, an American Alchemist in the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994);
  • William Stukeley, Of the Spleen, its Description and History, Uses and Diseases (London, 1722).