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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Pharmaceutical Suspicion

Michele Bachman’s implosion on the campaign trail back in late September is now widely accredited to her suggestion that the HPV vaccine causes mental retardation. In an earlier post, I argued that pundits should think twice before dismissing Bachman due to her position on this topic, and while Bachman’s campaign collapsed a lot more quickly than I expected, I continue to think that her arguments about vaccination were potent ones.

"La Vaccine Mort en Avortant de Son Dernier Monstre," ca. 1800

There is a deep distrust of the pharmaceutical industry running through much of American culture – indeed, a Harris Poll last year found that just 11% of Americans consider pharmaceutical companies “honest and trustworthy,” a remarkable finding given that virtually all of us place the products of these companies in our bodies and many of us literally depend upon them for our lives. The idea that the drug companies are deceitful and, perhaps, predatorial is widespread, stretching from the halls of academia to the claims of Scientologists, from right wing populists to the Rainbow Family, from alternative health care practitioners and their allies in the New Age and health food movements, to patient advocacy groups, anti-psychiatrists, and more. Even libertarians, who usually trust just about anyone able to make gobs of money, exhibit a certain skepticism of the pharmaceutical industry when they start talking about legalizing marijuana and other drugs. So what’s going on here?

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Rethinking Patent Medicines

Side Effects May Include Intellectual Snobbery

Joe Spillane recently pointed us to Caroline Rance’s blog, “The Quack Doctor,” and suggested that her posts – filled with advertisements for  things such as “Carter’s Little Liver Pills” and “Effervescent Brain Salt” –  form a “reasonable platform” for historians to “ask the larger questions about  consumer behavior, medical authority, business interests, and the role of each in shaping everything from health cultures to health care policy.” In that spirit, I’d like to suggest that those of us who write about the history of pharmaceuticals might want to reconsider our dismissive attitude toward the patent medicine industry. Rather than derisively laughing at the industry – look at that advertisement for brain salt! I can’t believe people bought that stuff! – perhaps it is time that we try to understand it on its own terms.

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Points on Blogs: The Quack Doctor

The “Points on Blogs” feature takes a bit of a break this week, offering a quick look at The Quack Doctor, a blog published by Caroline Rance.  Caroline is a writer of historical fiction, whose first novel (Kill-Grief) has recently been published, and who describes The Quack Doctor as follows:

I started The Quack Doctor as a useful way of categorising some notes I’d made about patent remedies in history – but it turned out that lots of other people liked to read about them too! The featured items are mainly from 19th-century British and US newspapers, but there are a few 18th- and 20th-century ones too. There are also occasional adverts for cosmetics, and some for products that were considered orthodox medicine in their time. Inclusion on the site doesn’t mean I’m necessarily condemning a product as ‘quackery’ – any medical advertising counts, and sometimes I post about more general history of medicine topics too.

Visitors to the site will find a legion of entertaining entries, like this post on “Habitina: An Infallible Remedy for Addiction” (produced in the United States between 1906 and 1912, and consisting primarily of morphine!).  There’s even an interesting post on Tucker’s Asthma Specific, a cocaine-based asthma cure I ran across in the course of research cocaine’s early history. Caroline tells me a few things I did not know about Tucker’s Asthma Specific, including that it was sold in the UK as well as in the United States, and that the company continued operations until 1959 (despite the making of their product having been declared a violation of the Harrison Act by 1915).  Very odd!  Makes me want to investigate further.

Tucker's Asthma Specific

Of course, not many of the posts deal directly with questions of addiction (though the blog is helpfully organized so that you can find them pretty readily).  Most simply bring the reader back into the world of patent medicines and medical promotion in the U.S. and England. 

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