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Analytical Chemistry

‘Patent Medicines’ Unmasked

ACS Meeting News: Study finds calcium, mercury in untested remedies subjected to X-ray fluorescence analysis

by Carmen Drahl
April 15, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 15

This week’s selections are from the ACS national meeting, which took place on April 7–11 in New Orleans.
Credit: Courtesy Mark Benvenuto
A patent medicine from the late-19th or early-20th century.
Photo shows Dr. Sawen’s Magic Nervine Pills, a patent medicine from the late 19th or early 20th century.
Credit: Courtesy Mark Benvenuto
A patent medicine from the late-19th or early-20th century.

Not every “patent medicine” was pure snake oil. A new study has revealed some of the contents of a Michigan museum’s collection of early American medicines and found elements including iron, calcium, and zinc. Analyzing scientifically untested elixirs is not new—a 1925 report showed one popular remedy was little more than aspirin, caffeine, and charcoal (Can. Med. Assoc. J. 1925, 15, 969). But the contents of the Henry Ford Museum’s extensive collection, including old remedies such as Dr. Tutt’s Liver Pills, was a mystery. Mark Benvenuto and undergraduate Andrew Diefenbach of the University of Detroit Mercy analyzed the collection with energy dispersive X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy. This nondestructive technique detects the signatures of specific elements but does not provide information about what oxidation states they take or what compounds they form. In addition to detecting elements common in dietary supplements today, the researchers also uncovered arsenic, lead, and mercury in some remedies. “This study represents a view of a time that’s considered the beginning of modern medicine,” said Benvenuto. Now, he adds, “a long, detailed NMR study is on the to-do list.”


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