Pharmaceutical Suspicion

Michele Bachman’s implosion on the campaign trail back in late September is now widely accredited to her suggestion that the HPV vaccine causes mental retardation. In an earlier post, I argued that pundits should think twice before dismissing Bachman due to her position on this topic, and while Bachman’s campaign collapsed a lot more quickly than I expected, I continue to think that her arguments about vaccination were potent ones.

"La Vaccine Mort en Avortant de Son Dernier Monstre," ca. 1800

There is a deep distrust of the pharmaceutical industry running through much of American culture – indeed, a Harris Poll last year found that just 11% of Americans consider pharmaceutical companies “honest and trustworthy,” a remarkable finding given that virtually all of us place the products of these companies in our bodies and many of us literally depend upon them for our lives. The idea that the drug companies are deceitful and, perhaps, predatorial is widespread, stretching from the halls of academia to the claims of Scientologists, from right wing populists to the Rainbow Family, from alternative health care practitioners and their allies in the New Age and health food movements, to patient advocacy groups, anti-psychiatrists, and more. Even libertarians, who usually trust just about anyone able to make gobs of money, exhibit a certain skepticism of the pharmaceutical industry when they start talking about legalizing marijuana and other drugs. So what’s going on here? Continue reading

Rethinking Patent Medicines

Side Effects May Include Intellectual Snobbery

Joe Spillane recently pointed us to Caroline Rance’s blog, “The Quack Doctor,” and suggested that her posts – filled with advertisements for  things such as “Carter’s Little Liver Pills” and “Effervescent Brain Salt” –  form a “reasonable platform” for historians to “ask the larger questions about  consumer behavior, medical authority, business interests, and the role of each in shaping everything from health cultures to health care policy.” In that spirit, I’d like to suggest that those of us who write about the history of pharmaceuticals might want to reconsider our dismissive attitude toward the patent medicine industry. Rather than derisively laughing at the industry – look at that advertisement for brain salt! I can’t believe people bought that stuff! – perhaps it is time that we try to understand it on its own terms. Continue reading