Sarsaparilla for Syphilis?

September 22, 2017

I recently acquired an old sarsaparilla bottle, its label stating that it was intended for medical treatment of such diseases as “chronic rheumatism,” "obstinate cutaneous eruptions,” and “syphilitic conditions.” It was to be used orally, not topically. Yes, this is the same sarsaparilla long used as an herbal tea and tonic that evolved into a health drink before finally becoming a soda pop similar to root beer (Nickell 2011).

The bottle shown (see photograph) held Fluid Extract Sarsaparilla, containing 40% alcohol, and was sold by the William S. Merrell Company of Cincinnati, founded in 1828. (It is a machine-made but cork-stoppered bottle of amber glass, measuring about 43/4 inches tall by about 2 inches diameter. I would estimate it to date from about the 1920s, but I have not yet found this particular bottle reliably dated.)

As this century-old bottle suggests, sarsaparilla (a name for varieties of the herb smilax) has a history of being used for treatment of venereal diseases. According to Herbalpedia, when a syphilis epidemic swept Europe in 1494, sarsaparilla became a popular treatment. In the United States, it appeared—in an 1835 Shaker religious society herb catalog—for treating, among many other diseases, “secondary syphilis.” And during the wild-west era, cowboys were said to drink sarsaparilla after visiting a bordello (“Sarsaparilla” 2011; Nickell 2011).

Of the countless brands and types of sarsaparilla, some claimed to cure the following: “Venereal Disease” (Dewitts S., registered 1891), “Syphilas [sic]” (Gooch’s Extract of S., adv. 1879), and “Syphilitic Taints and Sores” (Dalton S., incorporated 1892); there were no doubt many others (Fike 2006, 214–221).

As early as 1800, many physicians were denouncing sarsaparilla as having no effect against syphilis, yet it continued to be sold and used for that purpose. Today’s herbalists may still tout it for treating venereal diseases from gonorrhea and syphilis to herpes, with Herbalpedia citing otherwise unidentified “Chinese tests” that “reportedly” showed sarsaparilla, combined with five additional herbs, cleared “90% of the acute cases” of syphilis (“Sarsaparilla” 2011). Believe it or not. Medical authorities today appear to give it little notice, since better science offers better treatments—antibiotics for syphilis and gonorrhea, for example.

References

Fike, Richard E. 2006. The Bottle Book: A Comprehensive Guide to Historic, Embossed Medicine Bottles. Caldwell, NJ: The Blackburn Press.

Nickell, Joe. 2011. ‘Pop’ Culture: Patent Medicines Become Soda Drinks. Skeptical Inquirer 35:1 (January/February), 14–17.

Sarsaparilla. 2011. Online at www.herbalpedia.com/blog/?p=111/; accessed September 5, 2017.

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