Panacea n. A remedy, cure, or medicine reputed to cure all diseases (OED).
From elixirs of life to snake oil, the desire for a universal remedy appears to be, well, universal. Rather than mythical fountains and alchemical principles, the modern West has seemingly invested its hope in the exotic. Think about the recent marketing of new “superfoods” like açai and goji berries - these fruits and their juices were hailed as cure-alls for everything from obesity to cancer. Clever and aggressive marketing trumped scientific evidence for several years.
Early modern treatises and medical advertisements are replete with panaceas in various forms – pills, potions, and even amulets engraved with charms. Business-savvy medical practitioners, whether they practiced legally or not, advertised and sold their cure-alls in bookshops, pubs, and coffeehouses. It was a one-stop shop. Imagine enjoying your cappuccino with some intellectual conversation and being able to pick up the latest thriller and shop for your VD medication at the same time.
Ned Ward, a late seventeenth century author described this surreal experience:
The walls were hung with gilt frames…which contained abundance of rarities,viz., Nectar and Ambrosia, May Dew, Golden Elixirs, Popular Pills, Liquid Snuff, Beautifying Waters, Dentifrices, Drops, Lozenges, all as infallible as the Pope…good in all cases, curing all distempers; every medicine pretends to nothing less than universality. Indeed had not my friend told me ‘twas a coffee-house I should have took it for the parlor of some eminent mountebank.
Even other handbills made reference to the ubiquitous nature of these ads. David Edwards placed his advert in the “most Eminent Coffee-houses about the Town” despite acknowledging that most other ads were for “Pretenders to Physical Cures”! Edwards was careful to set himself and his panacea apart. Effectively saying, “I’m not a doctor, but you should trust me anyway,” Edwards emphasized that he was merely publicizing an effective treatment discovered during his travels. He was merely doing his civic duty by informing Londoners of a medicine that would “do the whole business of a Physician, and half that of a Chyrurgion.”
Medicines that could be said to do the surgeon’s job were particularly popular. Understandably so given the terrifying nature of surgical operations at the time! John Russell, who boldly depicted patients undergoing manual operations in his ads, also hawked his own panacea. His poetically named Spiritus Vitae Deauratus or Golden Spirit of Life promised to cure baldness, bad breath, deafness, amenorrhea, tuberculosis, and even cured burns and bruises.
Lockyer’s Pill was probably one of the most (in)famous panaceas in early modern England. Lionel Lockyer or Lockier (1600?-1672), a quack physician, advertised his Pillulae Radiis Solis Extractae in several handbills from the 1650s onward. Modesty was not a trait with which Lockyer was overburdened as both his handbills and gravesite monument attest.
The caption under Lockyer's grave (though somewhat smug) portrait reads:
The true Effigies here you may behold
Of Him, who for avoiding others ill
Hath Gain’d a Med’cine far excelling Gold
And known to all the World for Lockiers Pill.
|Title page to Lockyer's 1664 work.|
|A portion of Lockyer's epitaph reads:
Indeed, he wrote, if army and navy physicians and surgeons had given his pill to their patients, they would have saved tens of thousands of lives!
Outrageous claims to efficacy were supported by a series of case studies and testimonials. Providing names, dates, and locations in much the same way as medical practitioners did in their treatises, Lockyer related tale after tale of successful cures brought about by the blessing of his pill.
One such tale was that of James Carr who suffered from cancer in his nose and had been treated ineffectually by numerous physicians and surgeons. Given over by them as incurable, Carr went to Lockyer, purchased only two boxes of pills and was cured. Interestingly, Lockyer gave Carr’s current residence. Whether or not curious potential customers approached Carr (or if Carr really was treated), we’ll never know.
Unfortunately, Lockyer never published the pill’s ingredients and claimed to only have revealed its contents to three other men. He did, however, deny openly that it contained harsh chemicals like mercury or sulphur of antimony. Alas, he only hinted once at a potential ingredient, describing the pill as “of a solar Nature.” Yes, the only hinted ingredient Lockyer revealed in his advertisement was sunlight.
While one may describe a particularly sublime dessert as containing clouds and happiness, “extract of sun” is not a particularly convincing medicinal ingredient. Lockyer’s claims were, of course, decried. An apothecary named William Johnson attacked Lockyer’s claims, lambasting him for bastardizing chemical preparations and calling for him to “either confess himself ignorant, or a Notorious Lyer in Print.”
Johnson described his method of breaking down Lockyer’s pill and testing for its ingredients in his Agyrto-mastix (1665). He determined that Lockyer’s pills were in fact made up of antimony! The pills, for which Lockyer charged 16 shillings per ounce were readily available and sold by apothecaries for only 3 pence. Johnson, furious, noted that “either he [Lockyer] is so ignorant, he knows not what Antimony is, or else he resolved to deceive the World.”
Lockyer may not have been a particularly sincere or ethical medical practitioner, but he certainly was successful – his will reveals funds and assets at death over £2000.
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 Ned Ward in Harold Cook, Decline of the Old Medical Regime in Start London, Ithaca: Cornell University Press (1986), 41.
 David Edwards, The Most Excellent Universal Pill, London (1670).
 J. Russell, The Admirable Virtue of Spiritus Vitae Deauratus, London (between 1650-1665).
 Lionel Lockyer, An Advertisement, concerning those most excellent pills, London (1664), 2.
 Ibid., 6-7.
 For more on case studies see Sandassie, “Evidence-Based Medicine? Patient Case Studies in English Surgical Treatises 1660-1700,” Medical Humanities 34 (2008), 11-18.
 Lockyer, 7-8.
 Ibid., 12-13.
 Ibid., 2.
 William Johnson, Agyrto-mastix, London: printed by T. Mabb for Henry Brome (1665), 37.
 Ibid., 125-128.
 TNA PROB 11/339/91.