Cautionary Tales – the true scandal of Lydia E. Pinkham’s vegetable compound

14th April, 2023

It could cure almost any ‘female ailment’ – even cancer – said the adverts. But Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound was, in fact, just a concoction of herbs and alcohol of no proven medicinal merit. That didn’t stop desperate American women from buying bottles of the stuff – and writing to Lydia Pinkham for medical advice.

Why did her customers shun ‘expert’ doctors and opt instead for quack medicines? And why, when Lydia Pinkham finally came in for criticism, did no one question the efficacy of her vegetable compound?

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Further reading

Sarah Stage’s indispensable biography of Lydia Pinkham is Female Complaints.

Other books about the history of medicine (and quackery) include

Eric Jameson The Natural History of Quackery

Stuart Holbrook The Golden Age of Quackery

James Harvey Young The Toadstool Millionaires

Druin Burch Taking the Medicine

Supplemented by Britannica’s biography of Thomas W Dyott and “Was There Really a Dr Robertson?

Other sources on Lydia Pinkham:

Jean Burton Lydia Pinkham is Her Name

Rebecca Rego Barry “Was Lydia E. Pinkham the Queen of Quackery?

On how women have been treated by the medical profession see also

Elinor Cleghorn Unwell Women

Caroline Criado Perez Invisible Women

Werner Troesken’s classic article about the economics of snake oil is The Elasticity of Demand With Respect to Product Failures: see also Chris Dillow’s essay about Troesken and politics.   

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