Friday, March 29, 2019

Purdue Pharma taps a Gilded Age history of pharmaceutical fraud

By Jonathan S. Jones

(We've invited Jonathan Jones, the first presenter of our 2019 Civil War Speakers series to blog for us this week. Jones will be speaking here at the museum Thursday April 4th at 7 pm. See the link at the bottom to read the full piece.)

Newly unsealed documents from a lawsuit by the state of Massachusetts allege that Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin and other addictive opioids, actively sniffed out new, sinister ways to cash in on the opioid crisis.

Despite years of negative press coverage, unwanted attention from regulators, multi-million dollar fines and several major lawsuits, Purdue staff and owners sought to expand the company’s sights beyond its usual array of opioid painkillers. Purdue planned to become an “end-to-end pain provider,” by branching into the market for opioid addiction and overdose medicines, looking to peddle these medicines even while the company continued to aggressively market its addictive opioids. Internal research materials coldly explained the rationale behind this plan: “Pain treatment and addiction are naturally linked.”

As thousands of Americans continue to overdose on opioids annually, Purdue’s secret  marketing research predicted that sales of naloxone, the overdose reversal drug, and buprenorphine, a medicine used to treat opioid addiction, would increase exponentially. Addiction to Purdue’s opioids would thus drive the sale of the company’s opioid addiction and overdose medicines. Purdue even planned to target as customers patients already taking the company’s opioids and doctors who prescribed opioids excessively, according to the Massachusetts lawsuit filing. To keep the plan quiet, Purdue staff dubbed the scheme “Project Tango.”

The audacity of Project Tango enraged many observers. But considered in historical context, the news that Purdue sought to peddle opioid addiction medicines while continuing to sell opioids seems less surprising. In fact, there is clear historical precedent for Purdue's business plan. Over a century ago, "patent medicine" sellers pioneered this strategy during the U.S.'s Gilded Age opiate addiction epidemic.
Collier’s ad, Dec., 1905, after the publication of articles on patent medicine fraud. Wikimedia Commons
Opiate addiction in the Gilded Age

Opiates were some of the most commonly prescribed medicines in American history until the 20th century. Pills containing opium, hypodermic morphine injections and laudanum, a drinkable liquid concoction of opium and alcohol, constituted half or more of all medicines prescribed in American hospitals during most of the 19th century, according to research by the historian John Harley Warner. Opiates were also present in countless “patent medicines,” over-the-counter panaceas made of secret ingredients, often sold under catchy brand names like Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup. Americans could choose from 5,000 brands of patent medicines marketed for all manner of ailments by the 1880s. In 1904, just before federal oversight began, patent medicines had matured into an astonishingly profitable industry, with estimated sales at US$74 million dollars annually – equivalent to about $2.1 billion dollars today.

Opiate-laced prescriptions and patent medicines often caused addiction. The historian David T. Courtwright estimates that opiate addiction rates in the U.S. skyrocketed to 4.59 per thousand Americans by the 1890s – a high rate, although lower than the rate of fatal opioid overdoses in recent years. Most individuals developed addictions through medicines, rather than the infamous smoking variety of opium. Victims of “the habit” cut across demographic lines, encompassing middle-class housewives suffering from menstrual pain, Civil War veterans reeling from amputations and many others in between.

To read his complete article published March 4, 2019 in The Conversation:

Friday, March 22, 2019

Wild Plants Unlimited

By Rachel Dworkin, archivist

Spring is in the air and a girl’s heart turns towards wild edibles. Or at least this girl’s does. I love foraging. It’s basically a combination of hiking and a game of where’s Waldo with a tasty snack at the end.  Back in the spring of 1920, Mary Bentley was foraging too only, instead of eating her finds, she put them in an herbarium atlas. 

Mary Bentley's herbarium atlas, 1920
Each page features a plant found in the county along with its name and the exact date and location where it was picked. Some of the of the plants in the book include meadow rue, crinkle root, and several types of violets. Several of them are edible and quite tasty including strawberries, blueberries, and those violets I mentioned. Others are deadly poisons.
Bentley’s herbarium atlas is a great tool for studying the way our local ecology has changed. 

Strawberries in the atlas herbarium
Right now, the banks of the Chemung River are overrun with Japanese knotweed (Reynoutria japonica). Best harvested while it’s less than five inches tall, knotweed stems are a tasty rhubarb substitute, but they don’t belong here. Knotweed is an invasive species brought to America as a landscaping ornamental in the late 19th century. Other invasive edibles by the found in abundance by the river include garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolate) and white clover (Trifolium repens).

There are no invasive species in Mary Bentley’s herbarium atlas. Everything in its pages are native to North America. Some of them I recognize. I’ve seen bellwort (Uvularia perfoliata) growing all over the place. Others I’ve never seen before. Am I just looking in the wrong place, or have they simply been out competed by their invasive rivals? Either way, it’s clear that the plants along the banks of the Chemung River aren’t what they used to be. 

Bellwort in the atlas herbarium
Bellwort in the field


A quick note about wild edibles: foraging is a dangerous hobby. People have died from eating the wrong plants and even some nominally safe ones can have negative interactions with prescription medications. I have several references I use when I go out gathering, I always follow the harvesting and preparation guide, and I never eat something unless I am absolutely positive I know what it is. If you’d like to get into foraging, please, do your homework and stay safe.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Brief history of pens

by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

my favorite pen is a permanent ink, black felt-tip marker made in Japan. Easy to hold, it makes crisp clean lines, and is always reliable. If it wears out, I know I can replace it with another pen just as trustworthy. Throughout history, pens haven’t always been as easy to take for granted.

In ancient Egyptian times, people wrote with pens made from plants. Long stiff reeds were cut into smaller lengths, and one end carved to a narrow writing point. Here’s an example of a similar pen made from bamboo.
Bamboo pen
They wrote with inks made from ground minerals and water mixed together, and wrote on rough surfaces, which usually consisted of papyrus or wood. All this meant reed pens didn’t last too long. Metal tipped pens existed but were rare and expensive, and made individually from precious gold, silver, or brass. 

As writing surfaces became more refined, pens changed. Animal skins were used to make vellum and parchment. These surfaces were much smoother to write on. Around the 6th century, writers started to use feather quills as pens and "penna" is Latin for feather or quill. The most desired feather for a quill pen came from a large bird, often a goose. Shaped a little like reeds, quills lasted longer than reed pens. Quills were also more flexible, and this flexibility let writers create great flourishing marks to show off their penmanship skills. Our collection has some fine examples of goose feather quill pens dating from the mid-1800s.

Goose feather quills, mid-1800s
Preparing the writing end, tiny feathers near the point were shaved off, and the end was cut to a V-shape. An additional capillary cut was made to allow the pen to wick up ink. By today’s standards, quill pens held only a small amount of ink when dipped. Both reeds and quills would only make marks if held in one direction. This forced writers to form each letter carefully.  This was, and continues to be, the only way to avoid spoiling your message with unplanned blots and splatters.

Technological changes in the early 1800s improved pen tips. In Baltimore, jeweler Peregrine Williamson invented a reliable and financially successful way to manufacture great quantities of pen nibs out of steel. Nib is the name of the writing tip or point that’s dipped into ink. Having a steel nib or point instead of the easily damaged quill meant fewer splatters, and a longer pen life. Nibs could also be made in a variety of sizes, which would create a variety of lines. Williamson’s invention became popular right away.

Pens with nibs, like the ones Williamson invented, might have looked like these 1910 dip pens from our collection.

circa 1910 dip pens
The pens have metal tips, handles made from bone, and are trimmed with pearl and gold embellishments, and suggest a wealthier owner who didn’t have to write with cheaper feather quills.

Today artists and calligraphers still use dip pens with pigment-binder based inks. These inks either contain more carbon, which makes the darkest black, or they’re made from other ground up minerals in order to produce pure and vibrant colored inks. Modern colored synthetic inks mimic these hues.

This advertisement from an Elmira stationary store, circa 1914-1946

Local advertising notice

shows a picture of steel nibs for dip pens, and evidence they were still being used well into the 2oth century. With these sturdier nibs, writers didn’t have to replace pen tips as often, making them more reliable than feathers. However, dip pens still used free-flowing ink, and this was often messy. (Ask my father about the time I spilled ink on our wood floor. Twice.)

A fillable fountain pen first showed up in France in the mid-1800s. While it was more expensive, it was also more convenient. It held ink in a reservoir which eliminated constant dipping and inadvertent splattering. Later pens would hold cartridges of ink making filling the pens with ink unnecessary.

Writing was still somewhat slow. Having a similar V-shaped tip, these pens needed to be held one way to work properly. That changed when the ball point pen came along. The first patent for a ball point pen appears in Hungary in the late 1880s, but the pen’s popularity didn’t take off until after World War II. Ball point pens have a tiny free-rolling ball that turns in a socket and picks up oil-based ink from a reservoir which it deposits on the writing surface. 

Ball point pens from Chemung Canal Bank's 150 anniversary
Felt-tipped pens arrived in the 1960s. Their porous fiber tip distributes ink when pressed on a surface. The 1970s brought Rollerball pens which leave smoother marks because they use thinner water-based ink. And along came Gel pens which show up in the 1980s. Gel isn't ink at all, but water-based gel which is opaque and works best on darker writing surfaces. However, this fluid takes longer to dry and can often smear.

Technology has changed the way we write and what we use. The variety of pen options today can be mind boggling, which is why when my pen wears out I plan to replace it with the very same kind.