The 1848 Drug Importation Act

30. november 2015 at 8:00 | Veronika Valdova, ARETE-ZOE |  Medicine & Pharmacy
Throughout the first half of the 19th century, drugs were not regulated in the U.S. People knew very little about human physiology and the origin of diseases, and relied on home and herbal remedies. Germs were first suspected as the cause of often fatal childbed fever in Vienna General Hospital, in 1846. Scottish surgeon Joseph Listeur only discovered germs as the cause of disease in 1861.

It took another two decades for the germ theory to take root and convince the professional public about the benefits of aseptic surgical technique. Change of practices and way of thinking crawled only very slowly into people's minds. Twenty years after the discovery of germs as the cause of disease, the theory still was not generally accepted by the medical community. Until the death of President James A. Garfield.

Patent medicines offered cure for wide variety of ailments and conditions from infant colic to tuberculosis and cancer. It is no surprise that merchants who were selling these remedies often had no knowledge of pharmaceutical chemistry or medicine. Most of these medications originated from England. Those who provided medicines to the Royal Family were granted "patents of royal favor", which allowed them to manufacture and sell these products as medicines.

Gold Cure for Opium Habit, Drunkenness, and Neurasthenia. Old patent medicine advertisement (Wikimedia Commons)
Patent medicines were exported to America in the 18th and early 19th century. Problems with impure and bogus medicines did occasionally occur. However, the problem only really escalated during the Mexican-American War. During the course of the war, 1,773 Americans were killed in action. Additional 13,271 died from other causes. Many of these non-combat deaths could be attributed to poor living conditions and infectious diseases. Significant number of soldiers, however, succumbed to adulterated and bogus drugs.

Resaca de la Palma, Texas, 9 May 1846. Here Captain Charles A. May's squadron of the 2d Dragoons (now 2d Armored Cavalry Regiment) slashed through the enemy lines in an attack that climaxed the opening campaigns of the Mexican War. (Wikimedia Commons)

Public outcry eventually led to Congress to pass the Drug Importation Act of 1848, the first federal drug law. President James K. Polk signed the act into law on June 26, 1848. The Drug Importation Act required the U.S. Customs Service to inspect imported drugs to stop entry of adulterated drugs from overseas.

The success of the program was short-lived due to lack of proper enforcement and continuing practice of political prerogative in the appointment of examiners. Some improvements occurred during the World War I and throughout the 1920s. In 1936, a division of laboratories was created, finally removing the laboratories from the jurisdiction of appraisers and collectors.

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