Quest for Health Care Dollars – Nothing New

Listen to the Story

Health care is much in the news these days. A long and continuing debate about how health care is delivered, who gets it and how much it should cost and does cost is wending its way through Congress to the accompanying praise and scorn of friends and foes of some current proposals to change the system.

We tend to forget that it was not all that long ago – within the memory of people still alive today – that the average life expectancy of an adult male in this country was less than fifty years. And it was only within the past century that women began to generally live longer than men – complications of childbirth being a primary cause of feminine death at an early age.

So what exactly did one do in those days when one got sick with “fevers” or “fluxes” or other maladies? If one lived near a doctor and could afford to pay for assistance, a visit by a physician might be requested in an age when – yes – doctors still made house calls.

But for many people, home remedies and simple personal care from friends or family might be all the care one might get.

Some of the recipes of these home remedies had been passed down through families for generations. The contact of frontier societies with Native Americans and the interaction of people from many different countries one with another had led to astonishing variety in the kinds of remedies one might prepare at home for oneself. One local Midwestern recipe book from the 1880′s listed several different forms of root beer – made from roots of course- that had allegedly remarkable restorative and recuperative powers.

Or one might try their luck with a bit of patent medicine. Then, as now, a wide variety of preparations were available to help people cope with illness.

And one of the most famous of them was made for many years in Columbus, Ohio. Dr. Samuel Hartman was a practicing physician who came to Columbus in the early 1880′s and established himself as an orthopedic surgeon in Ohio’s capital city. And there the story might have ended had Dr. Hartman not had a dream one evening.

Dr. Hartman later claimed that in that dream, the spirit of a deceased Indian chief named Peruna came to him and revealed that the cause of all disease was catarrh – or congestion. Most people were well aware of nasal congestion and other congestive breathing problems. But Hartman now saw that one could have catarrh in any part of one’s body – catarrh of the hand, or the ear or the eye.

And the cure for all of this catarrh? Chief Peruna shared this with Dr Hartman as well. It was a secret formula that resulted in an elixir unmatched for dealing with the problems besetting mankind.

With the help of an energetic marketing genius named Frederick Schumacher – who soon became Hartman’s son in law – the doctor from Columbus soon was selling thousands of bottles of Peruna to a waiting world. Schumacher pioneered modern methods of newspaper advertising using paid testimonials from Civil War soldiers, notable authors and stars of the theatrical stage. Drink a bottle or two of Peruna a day they said – and the ills and afflictions besetting you will relieved.

Muckraking journalist Samuel Hopkins Adams explained why in 1905. In a lengthy article, Hopkins noted that a bottle of Peruna was significantly laced with alcohol as well as several different flavorings and food colorings. Adams seemed to be suggesting – “Drink two bottles of Peruna a day and you simply won’t care what ails you.”

In response to these stories and federal regulation in the wake of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the formula of Peruna was changed to become considerably less habit-forming.

Yet even with the changes, the product continued to sell quite well in the early decades of the twentieth century.

The placebo effect suggests that if one really believes a product is making one well – it sometimes does just that.

Many times it doesn’t. The trick is in knowing which times are which.

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