The Herald Bulletin

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February 23, 2013

Jim Bailey: Yesterday’s medicines are today’s long-gone memories

A picture of a bottle of Mercurochrome has been making the rounds on the Internet of late. If we remember what it is, it dates us.

Mercurochrome or companion products used to be on every family’s medicine cabinet. For a couple of reasons, you won’t find them at any drug store these days, along with other outdated medicines of yesteryear.

Mercurochrome and another popular antiseptic of a generation or two ago, Merthiolate, contained mercury, that liquid metal health authorities have decided is toxic enough in large amounts to ban its general use, even enclosed in glass thermometers.

Mercurochrome is a brand name for the compound merbromine, whose active ingredients include mercury and bromine. It was water-based, thus less likely to sting the wound than alcohol-based antiseptic solutions such as Merthiolate and iodine. It left a bright red coloring where it was applied, something doctors regarded even then as a mixed bag since it made it more difficult to spot discoloration caused by infection.

We used both Mercurochrome and Merthiolate on cuts and scrapes during my youth, but my mom tended to prefer Merthiolate. It would sting like mad when it was applied, leaving an orange color instead of red. It was a trade name for thimerosal, a compound of mercury and sodium, which also was used in vaccines.

Mom didn’t have as much confidence in tincture of iodine, which contained the element iodine and also stung when applied. Since it doesn’t contain mercury, it is still available today as I understand, although more popular modern medications have largely replaced it as a staple for cuts and scratches.

Mercurochrome and Merthiolate, though they contained only trace amounts of mercury, were given the thumbs down years ago by the Food and Drug Administration. They are pretty much no longer available on the open market in the United States, although still in widespread use in Third World countries because they are incredibly cheap.

These days doctors tend to recommend newer treatments for cuts, such as Neosporin and similar antiseptic creams.

Other kinds of medicines also have gone by the wayside. Notable are once-widespread patent medicines such as Hadacol and Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound. Both were supposedly vitamin-based, Hadacol advertised for a variety of ailments and Lydia Pinkham’s aimed at feminine discomfort.

In Hadacol’s case, the appeal wasn’t so much the multivitamin idea. Hadacol contained 12 percent alcohol, an attractive alternative for thirsty consumers in then-dry counties across the Southern states; there was controversy as to whether it should be sold as a medicine or an alcoholic drink. It might not cure what ailed you, but it would make you forget about your problems.

Medical science continues to advance, and methods of treatment are constantly evolving. I reckon it’s mostly nostalgia that keeps alive the memory of skin stained red with Mercurochrome after a fall from your bike or the merry-go-round at school.

Jim Bailey’s reflections on Anderson’s past appear on Sunday. His regular column appears on Wednesday. He can be reached by e-mail at jameshenrybailey@earthlink.net.

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