The Misappropriation of Native/Indigenous Imagery in Pharmaceutical Advertising

Editor’s Note: From the Collections highlights articles, artifacts, images, and other items of interest from publications and historical collections of the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy (AIHP). Points Managing Editor and AIHP Head Archivist Greg Bond writes about a recent AIHP online historical exhibit.

Burroughs Wellcome exhibit 1893
Burroughs, Wellcome, and Company Exhibit at the 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago featuring several Native Americans. Henry Wellcome stands at the left wearing a hat. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library.

At the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, British multinational pharmaceutical firm Burroughs, Wellcome, and Company constructed an elaborate exhibit featuring the company’s drugs, medicines, and pharmaceutical products. Company co-founder Henry Wellcome was on site for the Exposition, and, during the event, he posed for a picture at his company’s exhibit along with several unnamed and unidentified Native Americans.

There might not seem to be an obvious connection between Indigenous North Americans and a European pharmaceutical company, but Wellcome strategically utilized the imagery—and the bodies—of Native Americans to exploit a longstanding Euro-American association between Indigenous peoples and the healing power of natural medicinal plants. By arranging for the presence of the uncredited Native Americans at his company’s exhibit space, Wellcome hoped that fair goers would thereby associate his company’s manufactured pharmaceuticals with the therapeutic healing power of traditional medicinal plants.

Indigenous peoples in North America have long used medicinal plants and botanicals to treat illnesses and diseases. White Americans and Europeans quickly adopted some native plants for therapeutic purposes after arriving in North America, and they also came to strongly associate medicinal plants and natural medicines with Indigenous cultures.

Drug companies and pharmaceutical manufacturers—like Burroughs, Wellcome—in turn, capitalized on these beliefs and co-opted Native and Indigenous imagery and iconography to market drugs and medicines containing plants and natural products. Particularly during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, drug companies often relied on these misrepresentations and misappropriations of Native Americans and Indigenous cultures to brand their products as “natural” and safe for therapeutic purposes.

The American Institute of the History of pharmacy recently unveiled an online exhibit titled, “The Misappropriation of Native/Indigenous Imagery in Pharmaceutical Advertising” that explores some of this complicated history. Drawn mostly from the historical collections of AIHP and the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Pharmacy, the exhibit interrogates how drug companies and pharmaceutical manufacturers have misappropriated Native and Indigenous imagery, customs, and beliefs to market their products.

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