Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Getting Paid for Praising the Doctor – Medical Testimonials, a unique genealogical record group

Genealogists are familiar with many types of records, including vital (birth, marriage, death), church, court, and land documents. But the medical testimonial is a new one for me. Here is an example:

Patent Medicine "Elixir of Life" ad, c. 1901,
Infrogmation 15:49, 9 May 2008, Wikimedia.

The Wikipedia definition of a “medical testimonial” is:

  “…a testimonial or show consists of a person's written or spoken statement extolling the virtue of a product. The term "testimonial" most commonly applies to the sales-pitches attributed to ordinary citizens….” 1

TheFreedictionary.com adds to the above definition that these 

“…consist… of individual personal accounts of healing without statistics or controlled scientific experiments.” 2

All records have a purpose. Let’s see what the impetus was for medical testimonials that became wildly popular in late eighteenth and nineteenth century America when the advantages of modern medicine were lacking. 
Broussais instructs a nurse
 to carry on bleeding a
 blood-besmeared patient.
 Wellcome Library no. 16372i, Wkimedia.

So many ailments and diseases that in the past could make your life very uncomfortable or might even kill you, nowadays are controlled by early detection and/or effective medical interventions. But our ancestors, who lived in America up until the early twentieth century, did not have access to the medical knowledge and treatment available today.

Medical knowledge and care was not very developed in America in the 1800s. The average person had a healthy suspicion of the chances for getting better under a doctor’s care because so many did not. People often treated themselves with the herbs and later patent medicines that became necessities for nearly every home partly due to the rise and spread of advertising and medical testimonials in newspapers from the mid-19th century.
Kilmer's Swamp Root (a patent medicine),
 Edmonds Historical Museum, 
Edmonds, Washington,
 Joe Mabel, 2009-04-30, Wikimedia.

What was medical education like in America in the 1800s? I consulted the online article, Gale Encyclopedia of US History: Medical Education.   From this site, I learned that medical schools were sparse in 19th century America. They were simply businesses, and those who ran them were in it for the student fees. Courses were short, and there were no labs or opportunities to work with patients.

Why was it important for patent medicine hawkers to have ads and testimonials? Patent medicines, like any product, need recognition by the public for sales to occur.
Dr. Miles' Anti-Pain Pills, Edmonds
 Historical Museum,
 Edmonds, Washington,
 Joe Mabel, 30 April 2009, Wikimedia.
 Although several brands of patent medicines had been available in England and America since the 1600s, it wasn’t until the middle of the nineteenth century that this industry could say its products were found in almost every American home. And this happened for three reasons (rise in literacy rates, spread of newspapers and with them newspaper advertising) which Peggy M. Baker, Director & Librarian, Pilgrim Society & Pilgrim Hall Museum, explains in her article, “PATENT MEDICINE: Cures & Quacks”:

 “The expansion of public elementary schools meant that everyone could read newspaper ads that promised (unproved) cures and provided (unreliable) testimonials. The craving for news from the front during the Civil War meant that more Americans read more newspapers, giving patent medicine manufacturers access to more customers. 

Oregon Paper Mill, “…piles of pulp… made from wood and
 which…will be made into great rolls of paper.” 
OSU Special Collections & Archives, 10 July 2009, Wikimedia.  

The discovery of cheap wood pulp paper and improvements in the printing process meant that advertising volume could grow by leaps and bounds. Newspapers became filled with ads promising quick, easy, inexpensive and sure cures for diseases both dreadful and mundane.” 

But what does all this have to do with genealogy? Medical testimonials are actually a unique genealogical record group, one that I never came across before finding one through GenealogyBank.com by one of my ancestors.
Logo used by permission
 of GenealogyBank
Many of you are familiar with GenealogyBank and already have used its huge newspaper database. For those who haven’t yet mined this vast resource, this is how a Wikipedia entry describes the company:

“GenealogyBank.com is a commercial genealogy website housing a database that contains over one billion digitized records from U.S. newspapers and historical documents for researching family history online.” 3

I was doing a search on my cohort families in GenealogyBank. In my years of searching databases, I have learned a few techniques to make the search more focused, such as using quotation marks around the target name or phrase. 

When you log in to GenealogyBank, you see a simple search screen. But I wanted to limit my search to Illinois newspapers, so I scrolled down to “Historical Newspapers” and clicked on “Newspaper Archives.” The screen that appeared had a list of states in which to search and I checked “Illinois.” But you can “drill down” even further. When you double click on “Illinois,” you will see a listing of cities/towns. I clicked on “Chicago.” (note: Many times you will not want to limit a search, especially at the beginning. Putting too many limits may result in your missing an important article.)

Next, I filled in the search box fields:

Ancestor's Last Name:           “Cosgrove”
First Name:                           “Matthew”
Include Keywords:                 “Chicago”
Exclude Keywords
 Date Range:                     1850-1880

I clicked on “Begin Search” and the initial results screen appeared:

Date: Sunday, June 24, 1888
Location: Chicago, Illinois
Paper: Daily Inter Ocean
Article type: Ad/Classified

When I clicked on “Ad/Classified,” the second results screen appeared. At the top of the page, GenealogyBank gives you source information, including the type of newspaper article, the date, the name of the newspaper, the volume, issue, section and page. For my Cosgrove search this is what came up:

Advertisement Date: Sunday, June 24, 1888  Paper: Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, IL)  Volume: XVII  Issue: 96  Section: Part 3  Page: 20  

Below this citation is the actual article. And what a surprise it was!! GenealogyBank highlights your search terms in yellow, so I scrolled down the page, looking for “Matthew Cosgrove.” This jumped out at me:

“Miss Katie Frances Cosgrove is the 13-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Matthew Cosgrove, whose residence is at No. 303 South Desplaines street, this city.”

What a treasure trove in the first sentence –  names and addresses! And the details fit my research into the Cosgrove family in Chicago city directories and federal census documents.

As I scrolled down, I came to a line drawing of Katie – perhaps the only existing depiction of her.

In the text, we read that according to her mother, Mrs. Cosgrove, “Ever since Katie was 6 or 7 years old she has been troubled with catarrh…and though we tried many things, nothing seemed to do her any good.”

Next is the point of the testimonial, for this is where the reason for this whole story in the advertisement comes out:

Again in the words of Mrs. Cosgrove, “We heard of some of the remarkable cures of chronic catarrh by Dr. J.G. Carroll, now at No. 96 State Street. Several months ago I took Katie to the doctor’s office for the first time….She took the doctor’s treatment at once and one month afterward she was very much better. She has continued to improve right along ever since, and now feels and looks better than she had for years.”

And the testimony does not stop with Mrs. Cosgrove. Katie herself is also called upon to praise Dr. Carroll:

“The doctor’s treatment cleared my head at once, and made it feel as if nothing had ever stopped it up.”

After discovering this document on GenealogyBank, I wondered how the Cosgrove family came to be featured in a newspaper. They were an ordinary family with no renown or fame. That’s when I began researching medical testimonials and found how prevalent this type of advertising was at this time. But how were these “testifiers” located? How were they persuaded to testify?

As early as 1849, the American Medical Association (AMA) was warning the public of the dangers of “quack remedies and nostrums.”  In 1911, the AMA published several articles investigating the fraudulent use of medical testimonials under the title Nostrums and quackery. It appears that enterprising entrepreneurs realized the value of the personal touch in building trust of would be customers of patent medicines or doctors who provided quick cures. Often inventors of the products would pursue advertising themselves but as the field grew, they would seek partners.

According to one of the articles in the set mentioned above, a whole new job was created by the industry called “medical testimonial gatherers,” and men were solicited through newspapers to fill the jobs as reported in the American Medical Association articles mentioned above. These gatherers would offer small remuneration or even photos to perspective testifiers.
Still from the American silent film Traveling Salesman (1921), 
from page 60 of the July 1921 Photoplay magazine, Wikimedia.

The American public remained avid users of patent medicines and quack cures pedaled by “doctors” through advertising and were unaware of the actual ingredients that were in these products into the early twentieth century. As explained in a Wikipedia web page on patent medicines, it wasn’t until the First Food and Drug Act of 1906 that the industry faced its first regulation: 

“This statute did not ban the alcohol, narcotics, and stimulants in the medicines; it required them to be labeled as such, and curbed some of the more misleading, overstated, or fraudulent claims that appeared on the labels.”4
Harvey Washington Wiley,
  "Father of the Pure Food and Drugs Act,
” Ca. 1900, DCPL Commons, Wikimedia.

But it would be another 32 years, until 1938, when the statute would be amended to ban patent medicines.

To read more about the history of testimonials in American advertising, you might consult the book TestimonialAdvertising in the American Marketplace: Emulation, Identity  by Marina Moskowitz and Marlis Schweitzer, a resource suggested to me by a reference librarian at the Newberry Library.

  1. Testimonial, from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, online < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Testimonial>, downloaded March 2014.
  2. Detoxification, TheFreeDictionary, online <http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Detoxification>, downloaded March 2014.
  3. Genealogybank.com, from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, online < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GenealogyBank.com >, downloaded March 2014.
  4. Patent medicine, from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, online <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patent_medicine>, downloaded March 2014.
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