A brief history of fake medicines: ancient Greeks and ‘trashy elixirs’

By Matthew Johnston, RPS Museum

On 9 February the Falsified Medicines Directive will come into force, making it harder for fake prescription medicines to reach patients. Although this is the latest piece of legislation to tackle counterfeit medicines, the problem is far from a new one.

For as long as branded medicines have been around, authenticity has been important. As early as 500 BC, priestesses on the Greek island of Lemnos supplied tablets of medicinal clay, stamped with a special seal while still wet, in order to guarantee they were the genuine article.


Unknown origins

As pharmacy developed, medicines were made by apothecaries using ingredients sourced from all over the world.  They would not always know the ultimate origin of some of the exotic drugs they imported. In A Compleat History of Druggs (1694), Pierre Pomet describes substitutions that were sometimes made for certain drugs, either in error or deliberately, by apothecaries looking for cheaper or more available alternatives. For example, the bone from the heart of an ox was sometimes used ‘very improperly’ as an alternative to a similar bone from the heart of a stag when treating palpitation.

Swarming counterfeits

By the Georgian period (1714-1830) a wide variety of brand name medicines were available. One of the most popular was Daffy’s Elixir. Like many products at the time it was a quack remedy, touted as a cure-all but in reality nothing more than a laxative. It was this recognisable effect on the body, though, that convinced users it worked and led to its popularity and subsequent target by counterfeiters. A leaflet on display in the RPS Museum produced by Anthony Daffy warns:

“READER, if you have any Value for your Health, beware of Counterfeits, for they swarm.”

Daffy notes the particular danger of those who produce similar remedies and “are so notoriously impudent, as to aver in Print, that their TRASH is the Genuine ELIXIR.”

Copycat rivals

While some manufacturers had to battle with counterfeiters passing their products off as the real thing, others were plagued by rival companies trying to cash in by association and producing imitations that hovered on the boundary of legality. For example, from the 1860s, the Steedman company, known for selling teething powders and laxatives for infants, advertised its products emphasising the double E in the firm’s name and urged its customers not to be fooled by competitor Stedman’s Teething Powders.

Modern fakes

Today, highly organised counterfeiters continue to profit from the sale of fake medicines. In 2018 the RPS Museum received a donation from the MHRA of counterfeit Casodex and Viagra tablets. Both had been tested and found to be inconsistent with the genuine product but their appearance was such that a dispensing pharmacist or patient wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, showing the need for greater measures to prevent such products from entering the supply chain in the first place. This is the aim of the Falsified Medicines Directive.

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