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Healthy Skepticism Library item: 17049

Warning: This library includes all items relevant to health product marketing that we are aware of regardless of quality. Often we do not agree with all or part of the contents.


Publication type: Journal Article

Aronson JK
Patent medicines and secret remedies
BMJ 2009 Dec 14;


Patent means open (box 1), but patent medicines have traditionally contained secret ingredients. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a patent medicine as “a proprietary medicine manufactured under patent and available without prescription.” However, the term and its current definition are historically misleading. From the start, the hallmarks of patent medicines were that they were advertised direct to the public and sold over the counter. They were rarely patented because it was advantageous to be secretive about ingredients that were often ineffective and even hazardous. If a product had a patent it was generally because the remedy was effective-Epsom salts, marketed by Nehemiah Grew in the late 17th century, contained magnesium sulphate as a purgative.

Patent comes from the hypothetical Indo-European root PET, to spread or open out. Petals spread out; patellas, spatulas, and spades look like open dishes; space is an open area; and paella is cooked in an open . . .


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