Dr. Hand was born was born in Pennsylvania in 1848 and raised on a farm but soon that medicine was his calling. A precocious lad, he graduated from the University of the City of New York at the age of 20 and in the spring of 1880 located in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where he set up practice, specializing in the diseases of children. A biographer said of him: “He has always been a lover of children and perhaps no physician has labored more earnestly or effectively on their behalf. Early in his career as a physician he was very successful in treating children and for years he closely observed the effects of certain remedies, finally finding just the proper proportions to make them of greatest practical value.”
The good doctor then resigned from the medical societies of which he was a member and in 1885 placed his remedies on the market under the name, “Dr. Hand’s Remedies for Children.” The following year he trademarked them all and advertised widely. The quick success of these nostrums led the pharmaceutical firm of Smith and Kline, later known as Smith, Kline & French, to offer him a contract. In exchange for paying him royalties the company was given the right to market Hands’ products.
Under this merchandising agreement, the children’s remedies from the Scranton doctor enjoyed increasing sales and were said to be a household standby with mothers from Maine to California. Taking advantage of his unusual name, Dr. Hand frequently advertised on his bottles and elsewhere with a hand whose fingers bore the names of each remedy. The emphasis in his advertising was always on safety. On his 73rd birthday in 1921 the doctor opined for a pharma journal that much of his success was due to the retail druggist who knew that Hand’s Remedies were safe. “The druggist realizes he must be sure of the remedies he sell and he knows he can trust the Hand line.”
But just how clean were the hands of Dr. Hand? The record seems to indicate that something different was going on. For example his products specialized in colorful trade cards with winsome children on the front. The backs frequently carried a lengthy message entitled “Whiskey and Babies.” It noted that fully one hundred barrels of whiskey were being fed every day to babies under one year of age in the United States. “Thousands of children do not draw a sober breath until they can walk and amuse themselves,” it warned. A harmless remedy, on the other hand, was Dr. Hand’s Teething Lotion: “The baby is teething; its gums are feverish; its pitiful moans almost break your heart. An application of dr. Hand’s Teething Lotion to the gums gives it instant relief.” It also was advertised as a remedy for toothache, neuralgia (nerve pain) and earache.
The clear implication here was that rather than rub whiskey on the gums of a teething child parents should employ Dr. Hands’ remedy. In 1906 with the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act that required the listing of ingredients, including alcoholic content, it was revealed for the first time that Dr. Hand’s Teething Lotion was 12% alcohol (24 proof). While not as strong as whiskey, the concoction was stronger than most wines. Ingest enough of it and all pains would cease, even an earache.
A yet more telling example was Dr. Hand’s Worm Elixir. This was an era when infestation of the gastric system by roundworms was fairly common, particularly for those living in straitened circumstances. Other worm afflictions were threadworms and tapeworms. Presumably Dr. Hand’s product cured them all. It contained an active ingredient called “santonin," derived from the artemisia plant; a variety is shown below. Santonin, however, was very complicated to use and entailed serious risk to patients. King’s American Dispensary noted of this drug that, “...In improper doses, is capable of producing serious symptoms and even death. As small a dose as two grains is said to have killed a weakly child of 5 years, and 5 grains produced death in about 1.2 hour in a child of the same age.” King’s Dispensary went to say: Among the toxic effects may be mentioned gastric pain, pallor and coldness of the surface, followed by heat and injection of the head, tremors, dizziness, pupillary dilatation, twitching of the eyes, stertor, copious sweating, hematuria, convulsive movements, tetanic cramps, stupor, and insensibility.
It took a long time for the government officials to catch up with Dr. Hand’s Worm Elixir. In July 1942 the United States attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan filed a condemnation request against 23 and a half dozen bottles of the so-called elixir that had been set from Philadelphia by Smith Kline & French from Detroit. The official claimed that the potion had been misbranded in that it was dangerous to health when used with the dosage, frequency and duration prescribed on the bottle. The reason: “...The amount of santonin provided by the article was sufficient to produce serious poisoning.” In August a judgment of condemnation was entered and the product was destroyed. Who knows how many infants were sickened or may have died over the more than a half century that this product had been sold?
By this time, Dr. Hand was beyond the reach of those hurt by his Worm Elixir. He had died in 1923, a very rich man from the success of his nostrums for children. With his profits he had purchased a farm in Pennsylvania which he stocked with registered Holstein cows. When a prime Holstein bull named King Pontiac came up for sale the physician bought it for the unheard of sum of $3,000, the equivalent of $75,000 today. He maintained his farm as a model showplace and also was known for his large investments in Pennsylvania industries including railroads, coal mines, lumber and slate. Kiddie medicines had been very good to Dr. Hand, while questionable for his patients.
The question remains: Did Dr. Hand know that his remedies contained potentially dangerous ingredients? Was it ignorance or were those hands not so clean? There are no clear cut answers but suspicions linger....