Sir J. Clarke’s Female Pills

“Unfortunately for Clark, this was not the last time his name would be used in association with a patent medicine. Perhaps knowing the limitations of the law in this matter, many patent medicine producers in Canada and the United States subsequently created products in his name.”

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The great English remedy: Sir James Clarke’s celebrated female pills, 1859 (Courtesy of University of Toronto Libraries)

In 1848, an advertisement appeared in The Examiner (London, UK) which began “By her Majesty the Queen’s permission. Sir James Clarke’s Consumption Pills. A certain cure for consumption, and an unfailing remedy for coughs, asthma, difficulty of breathing, etc.”[1] The text was followed by a small engraving of the Royal Coat of Arms, thus strengthening the connection to the monarchy. The product in question was being sold by London chemist Richard Freeman, and was marketed as having been sanctioned by Sir James Clark, a prominent physician of the day, and Physician-in-Ordinary to Queen Victoria. However, Sir James Clarke’s Consumption Pills had little to do with Sir James Clark, beyond bearing his name, albeit with an ‘e’ added to the end for good measure. A court case which appeared shortly thereafter describes how Sir James Clark requested an injunction to stop Mr. Freeman from selling pills in his name. While Sir James Clark was known for treating consumption and had even published “A Treatise on Pulmonary Consumption and Scrofulous Diseases,” he maintained that he did not create, nor sanction the pills. Rather, their link to him personally was harmful to his reputation as a physician. Sir Clark had even conducted an analysis of the pills and discovered that they contained mercury and antimony; he himself would not advise using them in consumptive cases (consumption was a common term used primarily for tuberculosis). Despite a statement of loss of income and personal injury, the judge denied the injunction on the grounds that Clark’s reputation had not been seriously injured and further noted that “It is one of the taxes to which persons in his station become subjected, by the very eminence they have acquired in the world.”[2]

 

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Sir James Clark, 1867 (Courtesy of the Wellcome Library no. 12533i)

Unfortunately for Clark, this was not the last time his name would be used in association with a patent medicine. Perhaps knowing the limitations of the law in this matter, many patent medicine producers in Canada and the United States subsequently created products in his name.[3] One such product exists (in multiple forms I might add!) in the collection of the Museum of Health Care. Sir J. Clarke’s Female Pills first appear in advertisements in the Auburn Daily American and Saratoga Springs NY Daily Saratogian from 1855, and in Canadian newspapers the following year.[4] Using a very similar technique to the consumption pills, the advertisements read as follows:  “Protected by Royal Letters Patent- Prepared from a prescription of Sir James Clarke, M.D. Physician Extraordinary to the Queen. This invaluable medicine is unfailing in the cure of all those painful and dangerous diseases incident to the female constitution. It moderates all excess, removes all obstructions, and brings on the monthly period with regularity.” While this North-American product was in no direct way connected to the London-based consumptions pills, nor to Sir James Clark himself, the chosen language so closely resembles that used by Freeman, it suggests that the producer was well aware of the earlier product. Sometimes referred to as The Great English Remedy, Sir J. Clarke’s Female Pills, and later marketed as Job Moses Sir J. Clarke’s Female Pills and Sir J Clarke’s Pills for Periodic Irregularities, these pills were, despite their stated purpose, a well-known abortifacient. The pills contained oil of savin (derived from a species of Juniper, Juniperus Sabina), which causes inflammation of the skin and mucous membranes, thereby resulting in an abortion in pregnant women. The medicinal properties of savin were known by the medical establishment in North America since at least 1830 (and likely much earlier among Indigenous populations) when Constantine Samuel Rafinesque wrote about oil of savin in Medical Flora, or Manual of the Medical Botany of the United States of North America. He writes that the leaves of Savin “… have all the properties of the Juniper, in a higher and even violent degree; they increase all the secretions, but may produce hemorrhagy and abortion, acting chiefly on the uterus. Pregnant women ought never to use them; but they are very useful in dropsical complaints, menstrual sup ressions, also in rheumatism, gout, worms & in powder, conserve or tincture. None but experienced physicians ought to prescribe them.”[5]

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Female Pills Circa. 1870-1890, From the collection at the Museum of Health Care at Kingston.

Despite this pronouncement, these pills were sold in chemists and druggist shops across North America and were available by mail order. In an environment with few effective contraceptive options, abortion was likely frequent. Throughout the 19th century, it was a commonly held belief that a pregnancy was not established until ‘quickening’ or after the first movement felt by the mother.[6] This, combined with a medical establishment which more often than not actively discouraged women from pursuing family planning, resulted in women relying on products they could purchase on their own. Sir J. Clarke’s Female Pills were one of many products (for example “Dr. Love’s Celebrated pills for suppressed menstruation,” “Cook’s Cotton Root Compound- successfully used monthly by thousands of ladies,”)

available on the market aimed at regulating menstruation and bringing on a period. “While most of these pharmaceutical products were of dubious efficacy, some were composed of traditionally recognized herbs and roots that had shown a propensity to induce miscarriage in certain circumstances. Typically designed to cause vomiting, muscular contractions, and convulsion, they sometimes produced abortion as a side-effect.”[7]

Sangamo Journal-Illinois State Journal 9 July 1856, Vol 9, no.22
A Great English Remedy Sir J. Clarke’s Pills for Periodic Irregularities- Pamphlet from the collection of the Museum of Health Care at Kingston (1977.12.190 )

Abortion, however, was illegal in Canada at this time.[8]  In 1879, a criminal case came to the attention of the Spring Sittings of the Court of Oyer and Terminer in Toronto, Upper Canada. In Regina V. Stitt, the accused was charged with “Supplying noxious thing with intent to procure abortion” to a Mary Collins.  It is interesting that Mary herself was not on trial, but the person who gave her the pills. According to the court proceedings, “The prisoner, with intent to procure abortion, supplied a pregnant woman with two bottleful of Sir James Clarke’s Female Pills, with direction to take twenty-five at a dose, and that it would have that effect.” It is important to note that according to the defendant, the pills, if taken as instructed would not result in abortion, but must be taken in larger quantities than listed on the label.[9] A medical witness advised that the active ingredient in the pills, oil of savin, was well-known as an abortifacient. Further, the advertisements for this product state that pregnant women in the first trimester should not take the pills. The defendant was found guilty of his charge, despite arguments supporting the claim that the pills could not be considered “noxious.”

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Sir J. Clarke’s Pills c.1919 from the collection of the Museum of Health Care (1977.12.114)

Regardless of the outcome of this trial, it is clear that women continued to take Sir J. Clarke’s pills into the 20th century, as evidenced by another artifact in the collection of the Museum, Sir J. Clarke’s Pills for Periodic Irregularities which likely date to around 1919. Having passed away in 1870, it is hard to say if Sir James Clark the physician was ever aware of this product and its use of his name. Given his reaction to the consumption pills, he likely would have been just as unhappy with the American proprietors as he was with the London chemist, particularly for a product of this nature. Either way, these artifacts shed light on past practices which are often difficult to identify in the historical record, but were clearly central to the lives of woman across the continent.


About the Author : Marla Dobson, Ph. D, Curator of the Museum of Health Care

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Marla Dobson is the Curator at the Museum of Health Care at Kingston. She has a Master’s degree in Museum Studies, as well as a PhD in Art History. Her approach to the history of medicine focuses on how the humanities and sciences can come together in meaningful and creative ways.

Citations

[1] “Clark vs. Freeman,” The Jurist, vol. 12, part 1.  Containing reports of cases decided in The Courts of Equity and Common Law, and in the Admiralty and Ecclesiastical Courts with a general digest of all the reports published during the year 1848 (London, S. Sweet Chancery Lane, 1849),  149-151.

[2] Charles Beaven, “Clark vs. Freeman,” Reports of Cases in Chancery Argued and Determined in the Rolls Court During the Time of Lord Langdale, Master of the Rolls 11, (London: William Benning & Co. Law Booksellers, 1850): 118.

[3] Andrea Carnevale, Denise McGuire and Johanna Kelly, “’Removes all Obstacles’: Abortifacients in Nineteenth-Century Toronto and Beyond,” International Journal of the History of Archaeology 20 (2016): 749.

[4] Ibid., 750.

[5] C.S. Rafinesque, Medical Flora, or Manual of the Medical Botany of the United States of North America 2 (Philadelphia: Samuel C. Atkinson, 1830), 16.

[6] Constance Backhouse, “The Celebrated Abortion Trial of Dr. Emily Stowe,” Canadian Bulletin of Medical History 8, (1991): 164.

[7] Backhouse, 164-165.

[8] Backhouse, 165.

[9] Christopher Frederick Harman, “Regina v. Stitt,”Court of Common Pleas 3, (Toronto: Rowsell & Hutchinson, 1880): 31.


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