Patent Medicine
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Basic Information

Patent Medicine is a general term - and generally a polite one - for the wide range of substances peddled over the course of time that have weaved about on the line between medicine and scam - the word nostrum (Latin "ours" - meaning a proprietary blend) is a similar idea for the era when guild mysteries preceded patents as a source of IP security. More pejorative terms include snake oil.

The problem with a patent medicine is that, to qualify, it generally has little or no actual clinical benefit - it will generally include something exotic (such as mummia or actual snake oil) to which curative properties are attributed, a high alcohol content and/or a strong dose of opiate or other euphoric drug to make the patient feel better, and the creator's choice of excipients, which could be anything from food dyes and sugar so that it does down more easily to asafoetida or a laxative so that the patient feels like they are being medicated. At best, the brew can provide some pain relief and a placebo effect (which may be the aim of a moderately honest apothecary who can offer no other help), but may equally poison the patient or cause them to ignore symptoms that need treatment and thereby worsen their condition. The "medicine" may also prove addictive, which can only improve sales.

Peddling of patent medicines was a great habit of travelling conmen - albeit generally those operating at fairs and other places where licenced medical professionals (or at least an apothecary's guild) can't easily lay hands on them. Indeed, due to loopholes in regulation they remained a problem well into the modern era and are responsible for some of the more oppressive regulations against alternative medicine. On the bright side, they also remained on sale throughout the Prohibition Era in the US and were a reliable source of a drink allowing for a compliant pharmacist and the ability to tolerate random "botanicals" in your booze. Also, quite a number of traditional European liqueurs and similar things derive from tinctures and herbal wines that were hard to distinguish from patent medicines. Typical (non-obscene) terms for patent medicine sellers include Quack (also quack-doctor and quack-salver) and snake oil salesman - although as noted above, such things were also available on legitimate retail basis as well.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Well, there was the old "potion of delusion" in that RPG … no idea if there still is.
  • In a grittier game system, these are probably one of the hazards when rolling to see if the medicine you just used actually helps.
  • Wainscot fantasy may also meddle with the idea of the grifter's "special ingredient" being more "special" than he expects - accidentally dosing a community with a potent entheogen for example could cause all sorts of issues.
  • Otherwise medicine peddling, as noted, is a common grift for less honest characters - whether PCs or otherwise.
    • A dishonest peddler may have an NPC hooked on their patent brew - problems may include long term toxicity, "inevitable price increases" or the consequences of substance abuse. Of course when the supply is cut off…
    • A less immoral character might well be selling untaxed (or prohibited) alcohol with a nudge and a wink under the guise of a "nerve tonic" (infusions of cocaine were also quite popular in this disguise).
    • A PC doctor may find himself dealing with - for example, infected injuries or fractures that have been left for far too long because the patient has been "treating" their pain with an opium tonic.
  • There is a reason that "giving someone a taste of their own medicine" is so popular in English. Law enforcement may find that they have a - potentially unintentional - lynching on their hands when angry customers force feed the conman his own snake oil.
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