An Abstract of the Patent Granted by His Majesty King George…

Image of An Abstract's cover that links back to book reader view

Patent medicines, also called proprietary medicines, originated in England in the mid 17th century and were marketed with extravagant claims, offering cures for a host of maladies, including respiratory problems, fever, restlessness, smallpox, gallstones, and the common cold. Recommendations for dosage were vague, and ingredients were usually not specified. They could be obtained without going to the doctor, and usually for a very small price; as such, they had mass appeal, particularly to those of little means. Indeed, they often produced striking results, because of their ingredients. Historian Barbara Hodgson counts over 300 patent medications--including the medication described here--which contained opium. Other frequently-used ingredients included alcohol, and after 1820, morphine.

Image of page 6 from An Abstract that links to page 6 in book reader view

Only three patents for compound medicines were known to have been obtained before this one, for Dr. Bateman’s Pectoral Drops, a tincture of gambir (an astringent extract from an Asian plant) and opium. English monarchs since 1624 had been barred by Parliamentary law from the popular practice of issuing long-term patents to medical vendors; after that year, only the first inventor of a new manufacture process could have the patent. Benjamin Okell, the inventor of the Bateman drops, was granted the Royal patent for this product in 1726.

Advertisements published in the London Mercury as early as 1721 directed prospective customers to the warehouse and printing shop at Bow's Churchyard, where they could purchase the drops for one shilling, in a bottle closed with a Boar's Head seal. The printing shop belonged to John Cluer, whose facilities insured that advertisements, and, presumably, the labels for the bottles, could be supplied.

The title page of this abstract tells us that this abstract was initially printed by Cluer at Bow's Churchyard.

Our copy of the 1731 reprint by Peter Zenger is likely the first piece of medical printing in New York. Zenger, who would later become famous for printing seditious texts, was instrumental in establishing freedom of the press in America. The Academy has the only known copy.

Bound with our copy of the abstract is a copy of A Short treatise of the virtues of Dr. Bateman's Pectoral Drops, also issued by Okell and his printing house partners. Here, Batemans efficacy as a treatment for gout, rheumatism, jaundice, asthmas, colds, fevers, gallstones, and any number of other ailments are described in sections dedicated to each. The last section of the treatise offers testimonials from satisfied customers. Mr. Johnson of Chelsea writes happily:

"…troubled with the Gout and Rheumatism, I was advised to make use of Dr. Batemans Drops, which I did, and, to my great Surprise, and the Wonder of my Friends, in two Hours I found so much Ease, that I thought my self in Paradise; and (blessed be God) by taken but one Bottle of these Drops I am perfectly cur'd Yet, seeing…that it was good in many other Cases, I sent for another Bottle for a Neighbor…"
Bateman's caught on.

Colonial Americans soon had access to the drops, which were shipped in bulk to America on European freighters. English patent didn't prevent imitations from saturating the market in either locale. Patented or not, Batemans and its imitators would have sat on the same shelf, and it wouldn't have been clear to customers which draught was legally protected. Nor did it matter: Okell and his partners won only one suit, in 1755, with the great reward of a single shilling.

Okell, Benjamin, et al. An Abstract of the Patent Granted by His Majesty King George… New York, 1731.

Photography by Ardon Bar-Hama courtesy of George Blumenthal.