During some research, I was intrigued by an entry in an old general store ledger from West Liberty, Kentucky, in 1830 for “1 Vial Batmans [sic] drops.” Although I suspected this was just a patent medicine of the day, I was surprised to learn of its staying power as a product marketed (and imitated) for some two centuries.
There may or may not have been a “Dr. Bateman” behind the product. Its proprietors—when it was granted a Royal patent in 1726—were a man named Benjamin Okell and several promoters. Their enterprise consisted of a warehouse and a printing shop to produce labels and advertisements. It was soon among several patent-medicine brands that were shipped from England to the American colonies before the Revolutionary War.
In fact, by 1733 the New-York Weekly Journal had printed “An Abstract of the Patent Granted by His Majesty King George . . . for Dr. Bateman’s Pectoral Drops” along with the name of a local agent authorized to sell it. A ten-guinea reward was offered to anyone who “shall discover any person that Counterfeits this Medicine, or sells a Counterfeit.” No doubt this was part sales pitch, but imitators did come to be known, and, after the United States gained independence, American apothecaries marketed their own counterfeit versions.
In 1824 the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy issued a 12-page pamphlet which sought to provide the most trustworthy formulas for “eight of the Patent Medicines most in use,” including Bateman’s Pectoral Drops—pectoral referring to the chest or lungs. Numerous formulas were received, and the many for Bateman’s had more variations than any other. The pharmacy committee finally settled on a formula for Bateman’s, one similar to that of paregoric. That is, it was a tincture (solution) of camphor and opium. To this was added catechu (an old herbal remedy sometimes taken for diarrhea, or applied to a sore throat) together with anise flavoring and a coloring agent.
Of course the opium (a powerful narcotic consisting of the dried juice of the opium poppy) could no doubt make one feel better, but that was hardly the “cure” promised for such ailments as “Rheumatism,” “Pains,” “Hysterias,” “Stone,” (i.e., gallstones), “Gout,” Jaundice,” and so on, including “Agues” (severe fevers). As a cure-all, Bateman’s—and its many imitations—sold well.
A man named William A. Brewer recalled how in 1821, as apprentice to a Boston druggist, “Many, very many, days were spent in compounding these imitations [including Bateman’s], cleaning the vials, fitting, corking, labelling, stamping with fac-similes of the English Government stamp, and in wrapping them, with . . . little regard to the originator’s rights, or that of their heirs. . . .”
And so Bateman’s proliferated in many versions under a variety of similar names: Batemans [sic] Original Pectoral Drops, Dr. Bateman’s Drops, Bateman’s Drops, Bateman’s and Stoughton’s Drops, and simply Bateman Drops. Versions continued into the twentieth century when, for example—thanks to the 1906 Food and Drug Act—in 1918 a Reading, Pennsylvania, firm was fined fifty dollars for marketing an “adulterated” and “misbranded” version as Dr. Bateman’s Pectoral Drops. In addition to the ailments of old, it promised additionally to cure “shortness of breath,” “spitting of blood,” and “measles.”
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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: See Joe Nickell “Historical Sketches: Early Medicine,” The Licking Valley Courier (W. Liberty, KY), Nov. 2, 2000. Lisa Nolan of the Center for Inquiry Libraries turned up the following sources:
Nancy Cox and Karin Dannehl, Dictionary of Traded Goods and Commodities, (Wolverhampton, England: University of Wolverhampton, 2007), n.p. (SV. “Batemans [sic] original pectoral drops”); George B. Griffenhagen and James Harvey Young, Old English Patent Medicines in America. A Project Gutenberg EBook (#30162, online at www.gutenberg.org), 2009, pp. 3–8; Stewart H. Holbrook, The Golden Age of Quackery (New York: Macmillan, 1959), 32; James Harvey Young, The Medical Messiahs: A Social History of Health Quackery in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), pp. 13, 15.