ECU graduate student delves into the history, composition of historical remedies

An exploration of the ingredients in herbal remedies by East Carolina University students gave participants in a recent lecture series a glimpse at health care and medications from days gone by.

Elizabeth LaFave, a graduate student in ECU’s Department of Chemistry, presented, “’What are in these pills, doc?’”: Modern Chemical Insights into 19th Century Alternative Medicines” on March 22 as part of the Ruth and John Moskop History of Medicine Lecture Series. The event was hosted by Laupus Health Sciences Library’s Medical History Interest Group.

The remedies and medications that were researched and analyzed by LaFave, other students and faculty members were lent by ECU’s Country Doctor Museum in Bailey — the oldest museum in the United States dedicated to the history of America’s rural health care.

LaFave shared details about the doctors who cared for patients in several eastern North Carolina communities, including their backgrounds and some of the medications and remedies they dispensed. LaFave and a group of undergraduate students in her chemistry lab have spent years researching herbal remedies from the museum, including those found in vials, homeopathic kits and bottles dating from the 1840s and early 1900s.

“Today, we are going to speak about how our chemical analyses provided insight into this almost century-long evolution of medicine starting with Carmer’s apothecary kit in the 1840s and ending with our most recent analysis of female manufactured remedies in the later part of the 19th century and into the 20th century,” LaFave said.

There was a lot of back and forth about what medicines were advertised and which ones would be the best. A lot of them were advertised to treat the exact same thing, so some experts at the time summed it up as manufacturers simply seeking monetary gains.
- Elizabeth LaFave, ECU Department of Chemistry graduate student


LaFave described how the research was conducted using mass spectrometry and spectroscopic techniques to identify the separate components of the remedies. The team completed the chemical research along with historical research, studying historical materials such as medical advertisements and other information, to more fully develop a picture of how the chemical analyses could fit into the atmosphere of debate between traditional medicines and alternative homeopathic treatments during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Part of the analysis focused on items found in the kit of James Carmer, a New Bern druggist who practiced around the 1840s. LaFave explained that Carmer’s shop was situated in present-day downtown New Bern, but burned in the Great Fire of New Bern around a century ago. The Country Doctor Museum acquired some of Carmer’s wares as part of the efforts to preserve relics from medical practice in the region.

Booming industry

In Carmer’s era, LaFave said, the remedy industry was booming, even amid claims of quackery.

“There was a lot of back and forth about what medicines were advertised and which ones would be the best,” she said. “A lot of them were advertised to treat the exact same thing, so some experts at the time summed it up as manufacturers simply seeking monetary gains.”

The group analyzed several powders from Carmer’s kit using mass spectrometry, an analytical tool useful for measuring the mass-to-charge ratio of one or more molecules present in a sample.

“Essentially, what we did is we took a remedy, so for example the white rock sample, we did a preparation step, and then put it into our instrument,” she said, explaining the process. “It goes through a sort of separation technique where the compounds inside the sample become charged … we can uncover things we don’t know are in these samples, as well as validate things that they were labeled as. Was it actually true, and what was in it?”

Studying eight different samples from Carmer’s kit, the team was able to deduce that he was selling what he was advertising, which included rhubarb and cloves.

“We were able to take our analysis from the primary ion,” she said, “and we could easily say Carmer was telling the truth about what in fact that powder was.”

The students also explored homeopathic remedies from later decades from two different remedy providers, including some that were labeled and some that contained mystery substances. The team took samples from vials that were easy to open, in order to cause minimal damage to the artifacts. The samples included belladonna and rhus tox (poison ivy), both toxic plants used to derive remedies. The compounds were labeled truthfully, the team found, but some also contained sugar.

Other labeled remedies were divided into categories including elemental and herbal-based. The elemental samples took a different process to identify the contents, using an instrument to “torch” the elements and allow the researchers to look for atoms instead of molecules.

“We are able to detect the individual elements of interest,” LaFave explained, including arsenic, zinc and phosphorous.

The team found the element amount in each pill was small, but some lead was also found in the samples; the students tried to find out why lead was present. The students concluded that (the lead) contamination probably happened way back in the 1800s and not closer to the time the museum acquired the samples.

Female trailblazers

LaFave and her team also studied female-manufactured remedies at the turn into the 20th century. Women in the industry were not looked upon as favorably at the time, but several trailblazers persisted and produced remedies that built their own reputations through advertising. Lydia Pinkham, for example, used quirky advertising to attract customers.

Many of the remedies produced by women included an insert detailing the ingredients in each bottle. The samples studied included Mrs. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, an herbal medicine used by women to relieve menstrual discomfort and menopausal symptoms in women.

“Black cohosh (used for menopausal symptoms) was listed on Mrs. Pinkham’s recipe,” LaFave said. “We found that Mrs. Pinkham’s recipe was valid. Hers did contain everything listed.”

Through the project, the team was able to share a glimpse of the remedy industry by partnering with the Country Doctor Museum to help preserve not only the history, but also the chemical makeup of products advertised to patients.

LaFave is a Ph.D. candidate in chemistry. In addition to her primary project — a collaboration with the ECU Heart and Diabetes Institute investigating the impacts of the early onset gene, Breast Cancer 1 (BRCA1) on the skeletal muscle system — she pursues other multidisciplinary projects in a mentorship capacity. These projects combine areas of anthropology, history and biology with chemical analyses. LaFave’s publications have appeared in Analytical Chemistry, International Journal of Historical Archaeology, Sensors and Actuators Reports and Exercise and Sport Sciences reviews.