Saturday, September 17, 2011

A "Sure Cure" for Epilepsy - Part III - "From the Time of Hippocrates..."

In Parts I (here) and II (here) of this three-part series on the Converse Treatment for epilepsy I shared vintage (1902 and 1929) letters from the firm to prospective customers as well as details on the various schemes and scams they employed to solicit testimonials and entice new "patients."

In this third and final part of the series, I share a photo of a Converse bottle in my collection and share information on the "cure" from the classic book Nostrums and Quackery, a compilation of articles from the Journal of the American Medical Association in the 1910s and 1920s on the dangers of patent/quack/proprietary medicines.

The Converse bottles do not seem to be common...the bottle in my collection (right) is an unlabeled bottle of what was likely the company's final form - "The Converse Treatment Co., Columbus, OH"...I have seen a bottle from its previous incarnation - "The Converse Treatment Institute, Mt. Vernon, OH" [indeed, I had bought one online but it broke during ship
ping to me :( ]...even rarer is the first bottles - "Mrs. M. E. Converse's Sure Cure for Epilepsy" (you can see one at Matt Knapp's excellent "Antique Medicine Nexus" here).

So, what's in that stuff anyway? See below the article from Nostrums and Quackery, including the introductory portion on quack epilepsy cures in general, and a list at the bottom of some of the other quack epilepsy cures they exposed.


Many of these quack remedies so glowingly set forth in the public prints possess the power of suppressing the attack for a time, but it is suppression only, not cure, and the patients are always worse afterward. If pushed too far, death may Intervene from acute bromid poisoning."

Those who have followed the trend of events in the "patent medicine" world have noticed that since the passage of the Food and Drugs Act there has been a great increase in the number of remedies sold as cures for epilepsy. Possibly it would be more correct to say that the increase has been in the advertising appropriations made for this class of nostrums. The reason is not far to seek. The bromids are powerful drugs and produce well-marked physiologic effects. Taken in quantities that no physician who respected his patient's welfare—or his own reputation—would dare to prescribe, they produce effects that impress the layman with their potency. The purchaser mistakes a temporary suppression of the attacks of epilepsy, produced by large quantities of bromids, for a cure. The presence of this powerful drug does not have to be declared on the label, which doubtless accounts for its widespread use under the present law.

The enormous harm that may be done by such indiscriminate use of bromids was well described by Dr. W. T. Spratling when testifying before a United States court. Dr. Spratling, an authority on epilepsy, was for many years Superintendent of the Craig Colony for Epileptics at Sonyea, N. Y. Here is what he said:

"The colony has ascertained through the analysis of nearly thirty of the more widely advertised patent nostrums for the 'sure cure' of epilepsy that the bromid is the base of them all. Many of these quack remedies so glowingly set forth in the public prints, possess the power of suppressing the attack for a time, but it is suppression only, not cure, and the patients are always worse afterward. If pushed too far, death may intervene from acute bromid poisoning. This happened in the case of a boy 12 years, whom I knew, whose parents gave him too frequent doses of a patent nostrum, the essential ingredient of which as with the bulk of patent epileptic cures, was bromid of potassium. It is a frequent experience to see patients brutalized by bromid. go months without fits, but with a loss of mental and physical activity."

It is evident that the number of drugs in "patent medicines" whose presence should be declared on the label should be increased. In fact, properly to safeguard the public health all constituents in "patent medicines" for which therapeutic action is claimed, should be declared on the label, both as to kind and amount. At present there are but eleven drugs and their derivatives, of whose presence the public must be told! Such powerful poisons as arsenic, strychnin, prussic acid, carbolic acid and ergot may be used in "patent medicines" in any quantity that the manufacturer sees fit and the public is entirely in the dark regarding their presence. The same is true of the depressing bromids. It is high time that the list of "declared" drugs be extended. When this is done, the number of epilepsy "cures" will be decreased and the safety of the public increased.


The "Converse Treatment" for epilepsy is sold by the Converse Treatment Company of Columbus, Ohio. As is the case with most mail-order medical concerns none of the individuals controlling the business seem to be physicians. The "medical referee" of the company is given as Edgar J. Martin, M.D. In those free and easy days when "patent medicine" makers could let their imagination run untrammeled by any considerations for truthfulness this product was known as the "Converse Cure" and was put out as "the only positive cure known, adopted and recommended by the leading physicians of the country." The epileptic was told:

"From the time of Hippocrates until the Wonderful Cure discovered by the Converse Institute, this fearful disease has been treated by the medical profession in vain."

The usual warnings against all other "cures for fits," were part of the advertising claptrap and competitors' products were condemned under the statement that they contained "zinc, silver or bromid, all of which but tend to aggravate the trouble in the long run." In those days the Converse nostrum emanated from Mount Vernon, Ohio. Later the name of the concern was changed from the "Converse Treatment Institute" to the "Converse Treatment Company" and the concern moved from Mt. Vernon to Columbus, Ohio.

When the company is written to it notifies the prospective victim that the "treatment" is put up in "packages of six bottles for $5.00." In addition there are two side-line nostrums, "Tonicine Tablets" for "restoring nerve vitality" and "enriching the blood," and "Sanderson's Six-Herbs," a laxative pill. According to the advertising matter, the Converse Treatment is "used in hospitals, sanitariums and by leading physicians." On the interesting question, Who are the leading physicians that use this nostrum, the Converse Treatment Company is silent.

Some of their circulars give alleged testimonials from physicians but the names and addresses of these physicians are not given. In 1912 The Journal published the result of an analysis of the Converse Treatment made by Prof. E. F. Ladd, the aggressive Pure Food Commissioner of North Dakota. Professor Ladd's report showed the essential drugs in the Converse Treatment, as in practically all other treatments for epilepsy, were the bromids. More recently, in connection with the investigation of a number of "epilepsy cures," the Association's laboratory has analyzed the "Celebrated Converse Treatment." The laboratory report follows:


Original bottles of "Converse Treatment," manufactured by the Converse Treatment Co., Columbus, Ohio, were submitted to the Chemical Laboratory for examination. Each bottle contained 165 c.c. (5Va fluidounces) of a brown liquid, having suspended extractive matter present, and with a strong odor of cinnamon. The specific gravity of the liquid at 15.6 C. was 1.1426. Qualitative tests demonstrated the presence of ammonium, calcium, sodium, potassium, chlorid and bromid. Saccharine also seemed to be present. From spectroscopic tests, lithium was not present in quantities greater than minute traces. Essentially each 100 c.c. of the solution contains about 7.3 gm. ammonium bromid, 5 gm. calcium bromid and 8.7 gm. potassium bromid. Calculating from the bromid determination, each dose 1 teaspoonful (1 fluidram) contains the equivalent of 14.5 grains of potassium bromid. or each daily dose (4 teaspoonfuls) corresponds to 58.0 gr. potassium bromid.

As might have been expected from the investigation of various nostrums of the same type, the "Converse Treatment" is but one more of the bromid mixtures. This, too, in spite of the fact that, in the past, the exploiters of the stuff stated that epilepsy cures containing bromids "tend to aggravate the trouble in the long run." The statement that the Converse Treatment will cure epilepsyis as false as the other statement that the nostrum is used "by leading physicians." The stuff has all the limitations and dangers of a bromid mixture. It will never cure a case of epilepsy, but, indiscriminately used by those who must be ignorant of the fact that it contains bromids, may easily result in adding to the epileptic victim's already serious condition the dangers of bromism.

Other epilepsy "cures" exposed in the book and previous JAMA articles include:

Croney's Specific for Epilepsy
Grant's Epilepsy Cure
Guertin's Nerve Syrup
Kline's Nerve Remedy
Koenig's Nerve Tonic
May's Formula
Miles' Restorative Nervine
Peebles' Institute of Health
Towns' Epilepsy Treatment
Waterman's Tonic Restorative
and others

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