“Píso’s [Non-] Cure for Consumption”

May 23, 2018

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Among the most notorious quack nostrums for consumption (tuberculosis), was “Píso’s Cure,” dating from the Civil War. It was no cure at all, and was cynically promoted by a trio of partners whom one writer terms, “a marketeer, a medic and a moneybags.”

Its marketeer was one Ezra T. Hazeltine, who named the product Píso’s (more on this presently) and the enterprise Hazeltine & Company. The medic was Dr. Macajah C. Talbott (a graduate of the Buffalo Medical School) who came up with the formula for Píso’s. And the moneybags was a wealthy businessman, Myron Waters. All three lived in Warren, Pennsylvania. Founded in 1864, the company had, in a few years (by 1870), expanded the making of “Píso’s Cure for Consumption” by building a factory on an island of the Allegheny River flowing by Warren (Sullivan 2007).

It has been a mystery why Hazeltine used the name Píso. As Jack Sullivan states (2007), “An ancient Roman family bore that name but its members were politicians, not physicians.” However, I offer the suggestion that the name may derive from Willem Píso (1611–1678), a famous Dutch physician and naturalist who was an expedition doctor in Brazil for the Dutch West India company (1637–1644) and who became an important founder of the field of tropical medicine (“Willem Píso” 2018).

In any event, Píso’s Cure originally contained opium—a drug regarded with revulsion because returning Civil War veterans were often addicted, having been treated with opiates for the pain of their wounds. By 1872, anticipating Congress’ ban on opium derivatives in patent medicines, Píso’s hucksters dropped those ingredients from its formula; however, they retained cannabis, chloroform, and alcohol—while not listing them on the label. Píso’s “cured” nothing, only giving the purchaser the illusion of getting better by making him feel better.

Again, in anticipation of more restrictions (which came in 1905 with passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act), Píso’s hawkers removed their complained-of phrase “for Consumption.” They shrewdly replaced it with “for Coughs and Colds” which they claimed were conditions that led to tuberculosis (Sullivan 2007). When in 1907 the FDA cautioned proprietary medicine sellers against using the word “cure,” Hazeltine & Co. changed their labels to read “Píso’s Remedy.” Piso bottles changed as well. (Of two shown from my collection in the photo, both about 51/8 inches tall, the aqua one is oldest, the emerald-green one lacking the word “Consumption.” Píso bottles are also seen in olive and amber.)

Stripped of its opiates and in time its alcohol and cannabis, Píso’s reign effectively ended shortly before World War II. However a pharmacist in Warren did continue to concoct small batches of a cough medicine of that name for a time. Chloroform was banned from such products in 1947, and the last vestige I have found of a Piso product was an ad of 1948 (Sullivan 2007; Fike 2006, 74, 104).

References

Fike, Richard E. 2006. The Bottle Book: A Comprehensive Guide to Historic, Embossed Medicine Bottles. Caldwell, NJ: The Blackburn Press.

Sullivan, Jack. 2007. “Píso’s Trio: One Step Ahead of the Law.” Bottles and Extras magazine, September-October, pp. 18–22.

“Willem Piso.” 2018. Online at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willem_Piso; accessed February 27, 2018.