Dr. William Burr Caldwell’s Syrup Pepsin became a popular patent medicine toward the end of the 19th century. Patent medicines, or nostrums, were not actually patented medicines at all. They were medicines that contained secret ingredients and claimed to “cure” many illnesses. They were usually sold at traveling medical shows or through newspaper and magazine ads. Most of these medicines contained large amounts of alcohol, opium, or other narcotics and therefore, could relieve symptoms, but not actually cure anything. In 1906, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, which required druggists to list such ingredients on medicine labels.
Syrup Pepsin Ingredients
The two main ingredients in Dr. Caldwell’s syrup were pepsin and Egyptian senna.
During the 1850’s, physicians began to advocate the oral intake of pepsin. Pepsin is a digestive enzyme produced in the stomach that helps to break down proteins. During digestion, pepsin is activated by the hydrochloric acid in the stomach. Commercial pepsin that is used in medicines and supplements is extracted from the glandular region of a pig stomach.
Senna is a shrub-like plant with yellow flowers that is native to North Africa. It has a number of medicinal uses, but the most common is a laxative. The leaves and pods contain chemicals called anthraquinones that irritate the lining of the bowels causing the laxative effect. It is currently used in herbal supplements, as well as OTC medications like Senokot.
Dr. W. B. Caldwell was a medical doctor who started his practice in Monticello, Illinois in 1885. He became interested in the use of pepsin as a medicine in 1887, and founded his Pepsin Syrup Company in 1893. He died in 1922 at the age of 83.
The Pepsin Syrup company used embossed bottles with a cork top from 1895 to 1941. In 1942, they began using screw top bottles. My bottle is a 3-sided panel-style bottle with indented paneling on the sides for labels.
The maker’s mark on the bottom is a P in a circle, which represents the Pierce Glass Company who operated in Port Allegany, PA. The number 15 most likely represents the year 1915.
In 1936, the Federal Trade Commission issued a citation against Dr. W. B. Caldwell Inc. for false advertising claims. This notice appeared in Broadcast Advertising in November 1936.
A few years later, in 1939, the FTC ordered the company to stop using the word “pepsin”. Apparently the syrup did not contain enough pepsin to qualify as an active ingredient, nor is pepsin a laxative as advertised. The company filed an appeal in 1940, but lost. From the case record: “The Commission’s expert witnesses, ten qualified physicians, testified that pepsin possesses no therapeutic value as a laxative or in the treatment of constipation. On this evidence the Commission made its finding that pepsin has no therapeutic value as a laxative.”
A Syrup Pepsin Testimonial
Prior to the FTC’s decision, many people believed that Syrup Pepsin did have therapeutic value. Here is one of many testimonials that can be found in early 20th century newspapers. This one is from Mrs. A. P. Jackson, published in the Tennessean newspaper in May of 1905:
Syrup Pepsin Advertisements
These are some of the newspaper ads that ran in various papers during the early 1900’s. Many even offered a free trial coupon.