There is no cure for the flu.
Medical advances and decades of research have brought about treatments that can shorten the length of illness for those infected and vaccines can offer protection against the respiratory virus, but none of those existed a century ago when influenza was spreading across the nation.
There was certainly no cure for the flu during the earlier pandemic, but that didn’t stop flim-flam men from selling remedies that can ward off the virus or even miraculously cure those sickened by the virus. Some were even advertised in The Index-Journal and The Evening Index.
One such concoction was calomel, which was billed as a laxative that helps the liver and protects against colds, the flu and pneumonia. Calotab billed its nausealess calomel as “the most thorough and effective, as well as the safest and most agreeable remedy for this purpose.”
In reality, mercurous chloride — the chemical name for calomel — was a common source of mercury poisonings and doctors had been warning about its ill effects for long enough that a poem was published in 1825 cautioning doctors about its use:
Since Calomel’s become their boast,
How many patients have they lost,
How many thousands they make ill,
Of poison, with their calomel.
Something sold to prevent influenza was Dr. Hilton’s Life for the Kidneys and Liver, which is supposed to keep the user’s kidneys and liver healthy enough to keep someone from getting infected. Among other uses, it wards off malaria, cures worms and treats gout — at least according to the box, which bills the elixir as “a vegetable compound.”
Dr. Hilton’s Life contained emodin, an herbal laxative that is derived from rhubarb and some other plants. It was also 25% alcohol and could be purchased at a drug store despite prohibition. Twenty years later, the Food and Drug Administration determined this supposed cure-all’s packaging “bore false and fraudulent curative and therapeutic claims.”
The lack of a cure or effective treatment was well known and even came up at a meeting of concerned life insurance salesmen.
“There is no serum that I know of which is of the slightest value in preventing influenza, nor is there any serum that is of any use whatsoever in the treatment of the disease,” Dr. G.W. McCoy with the U.S. Public Health Service told the Association of Life Insurance Medical Directors during a convention in February 1919 in Newark.
Despite their concerns about growing payouts for disease deaths, life insurance companies were using influenza to sell new policies.