Digger Odell Publication © 2006




By the 1820s, the American patent medicine industry was firmly established as our own national brands gained prominence. No American medicine makers name was more widely known than William Swaim of Philadelphia and his famous Panacea for syphilis, described as for those who are affected with, “diseases arising from impurity of the blood and juices-also, those who suffer by directed Liver, Rheumatic affections, or from indiscretion of their youth”. He was known as a quack or a savior depending upon who was describing him. Swaim was clearly a business genius, and noted the problems faced by those who had come before him and met them with creative solutions.


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Swaim moved to Philadelphia and began selling the Panacea about 1820. He wrote several books extolling the virtues of his discovery which put the Panacea in the public eye. He claimed to have induced a numerous of infirmaries and hospitals to give his medicine a trial and even sent one Dr. Price, his agent, to Europe to tout his medicine. He solicited testimonials from doctors and patients. He immediately became a lightning rod for controversy.

With his meteoric rise in popularity and notoriety, came the counterfeiters. His battle with them was waged as skillfully as his battle against the medical establishment. His fight is the quintessential example of the ebb and flow of the war between the medicine makers and the profiteers who would scam them. And why not scam the scammer? After all, he was charging $3.50 per bottle, a fortune in those days. There was money to be made and apparently lots of it.



"February 17,1823."'


The great demand and wonderful success of this medicine, has induced a number of persons to imitate it in various ways. Some are selling, Sarsaparilla and other syrup;, imposing them on the ignorant for the Panacea; others are mixing the genuine medicine . with molasses & c. making three bottles out of one-thus retaining some of its virtues.

These imitations and adulterations have, in many instances, protracted the sufferings of patients, in cases where the genuine medicine would have proved instantly efficacious. I therefore deem it a duty I owe the public, to acquaint them, that it is impossible, from the very nature of its constituents, to be discovered by chemical analysis; and, consequently, that all other mixtures represented to be mine, and sold as such, are fraudulent and base impositions, calculated to deceive the ignorant and unwary. The genuine medicine has my signature on a label, representing Hercules and the Hydra, and my name on the seal.

Price 3 dollars 50 cents per bottle, or 46 dollars per dozen. Communications, postpaid, and orders from any part of the world, will receive ,immediate attention.

Printed Directions accompany the Medicines

William Swarm,

Saturday Evening Post June 12, 1824.


Within four years of going into business, he was actively defending himself against the counterfeiters in the media. Predictably, he initially used his signature on the label and his name on the seal of the bottle as a first line of defense. The counterfeiters, however, were nearly as ingenious as Swaim and just as determined. In 1824, Swaim was bottling his medicine in large quart sized rectangular, aqua containers embossed with the words “Genuine Swaim’s Panacea.” It is not known if this is the type of bottle he first used but from the descriptions given by him, he was forced to change bottles more than once. In 1826, he note, “numerous and multiplying frauds committed on the public, by numerous mixtures in imitation…. there are now at least twenty imitations of it.” Not all of these were counterfeiters some were merely imitators with similar products. A few years later he claimed more than fifty imitations

Photo by GlassWorks Auctions

Rare imitator, Fairchild's Sure Remedy, copied the Swaim bottle

In 1828, in what was little more than a disguised attack directly on  Swaim, a committee of doctors appointed by the Medical Society of Philadelphia was convened to “inquire into the remedial value of the more prominent specifics now sold in Philadelphia, under the assumed names of  “Panacea.” In the Report of the Committee on Quack Medicine issued December 15, 1827, the committee meticulously attacked his subscribers, doctors whose testimonials Swaim used in his advertising. One back-peddling Dr. Chapman, indicated he had, ‘overrated the value of the Panacea of Swaim’ and now had ‘entirely ceased to prescribe it.’ The attackers proved that in the hospitals Swaim had “convinced” to try his medicine, no cures were effected and ‘so far as regards the Pennsylvania Hospital and Philadelphia Alms House, the assertion of Wm. Swaim is directly the reverse of truth. His Panacea is not, nor was at the time he wrote, used in either of the institutions above mentioned.” For twenty-seven pages the committee of doctors berated him, even publishing his formula they claimed was based on a French preparation saying, “When Swaim first began to vend his syrup in this city, in the year 1820, the taste of honey was very perceptible in it, as in the original French preparation; but of late years the syrup appears to have been made for the most part, if not entirely, of sugar. The addition of wintergreen serves still more to disguise its taste and the nature of the other ingredients”. They lambasted his methods of production as lacking uniformity and determined the Panacea was contaminated with poisonous substances. The assault was thorough. The committee disseminated the results in a pamphlet, no doubt with little fanfare in which they labeled him a “quack”, but it did nothing to slow the sales of Swaim or abate the efforts at imitation.


William Swaim answered them in the newspaper ads,


The false reports concerning this valuable medicine, which have been so diligently circulated by certain physicians, have their origin either in ENVY, or in the mischievous effects of the SPURIOUS IMITATIONS. The proprietor gives the most solemn assurances that this medicine contains neither mercury nor any other deleterious drug.
The Ariel,
May 2, 1829.


Bad news continued to trickle in as more evidence was complied against Swaim by the establishment, including an account of a death from his medicine. Swaim answered the attack with a barrage of advertising. Beginning about 1827, perhaps due to competition, he lowered his price by 50 cents per bottle to $3.00



My medicine and his are one and the same thing


Mr. W. W. Potter was shameless in his attempts to ride on Swaim’s coat tails. He was the proprietor of Potter’s Vegetable Catholicon.  In March of 1827, he announced he had been induced to change his label, formerly


“representing two lions rampant with a chemical stand for a label more significant of the powers possessed by this medicine. The label which in the future will be attached to the bottles, represents ‘Hercules aided by Iolas destroying the Hydra.’


The battle between Potter and Swaim drew the attention of the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal which on July 21, 1829 published an article lampooning the two so-called, Infallible Cordials, in which they poked fun at the ‘twin stars’ of the curative world.


It might at first seem a matter of indifference to which of these great benefactors of the human race a fellow who had a mind to live for four or live hundred years had resource, but here comes the rub : POTTER'S patients had swallowed, heaven knows how many, bottles of the Panacea, to no purpose; and Swaim's had gulped down as many measures of the Catholicon with equal effect: so that even Swaim may fail, and Potter does not always succeed. There is still, however, a comfort in store, if the one cannot cure you, the other will.


In September of 1827, John A. Parker began advertising his Panacea in the Saturday Evening Post claiming,


Mr. Swaim wishes to establish the belief, that he is the sole proprietor of the celebrated Panacea, upon which he has built his fortune. I have been acquainted with the original recipe from which Swaim manufactures his medicine. It was obtained from my father-in-law who has used it for thirty years. I can establish the fact beyond the possibility of doubt, that my medicine and his are one and the same thing.




He claimed Swaim had made a false and unjustifiable attack on him and “Parker’s Renovating Vegetable Panacea”. Like Swaim, he used doctor testimonials and sold his Panacea as, “Equal to Swaim’s or any other, and One Dollar Cheaper


Another of the impostors was, Scott’s Panacea put up 1828-1829 by Edwin T. Scott of Philadelphia. His ads used similar language to that found in the Swaim advertisements. Subtly he says of Scott’s Panacea, “one bottle is warranted preferable to two of the most approved of all others


Swaim was undeterred by the imitators, he simply used the logic that the fact there were so many imitators, was proof his product must be superior. The New York Medical and Physical Journal July-Sept 1827 lists, among others a Skinner’s Panacea and Wilson’s Panacea. In the case of the latter, Wilson alleges to have been an employee of Mr. Swaim’s for five years assisting in the preparation of the Panacea and is vending a medicine composed of the exactly the same ingredients but at a cheaper price.


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