Story: Medicines and remedies

For hundreds of years people have sought effective medicines and remedies. Māori used flax and other plants to relieve common ailments. Early European settlers relied on addictive drugs such as opium and morphine. Many medicines were dangerous or ineffective. Until 1946 it was not compulsory to label the ingredients in medicines.

Story by Pauline Norris and Rosemary Beresford
Main image: Bonnington's Irish Moss advertisement

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Early Māori and European medicines

Native plants such as flax and koromiko were used by Māori to treat everything from toothache to constipation. They were prepared and administered by tohunga. Missionaries and seamen provided medicines to early European settlers. Some of them, such as opium, were highly addictive.

Plants, pills and poultices

From the 1850s, large quantities of patent (ready-made and branded) medicines were imported from the United States and Britain. Advertising made extravagant claims about them. They sometimes contained dangerous ingredients such as chloroform or morphine, leading to accidental deaths. Many contained a high percentage of alcohol. Some were made from common plants like rhubarb, and were little more than gentle laxatives.

Beginning of the drug industry

From the late 19th century pharmacologists (chemists) developed new medicines from plant extracts. The pharmaceutical industry expanded rapidly in the early 20th century as drugs were produced in laboratories and manufactured in large quantities. They were sold to the public by doctors and pharmacists in easy-to-swallow tablets and capsules. Effective medicines such as antibiotics and insulin provided new ways to treat diseases.

What is in the medicine?

To protect people from harmful medicines, regulations introduced in 1904 required ingredients to be listed on packaging. Manufacturers said they would no longer sell their medicines in New Zealand if the ingredients were revealed, and local firms protested that they would go out of business. The regulations were revoked, and labelling of ingredients was not made compulsory until 1946.

Monitoring medicines and remedies

From the early 20th century the government introduced laws to control the safety and use of medicines. In the 2000s this work was carried out by two agencies. Pharmac purchased medicines, and Medsafe controlled their safety and availability. Medsafe also carried out border control to intercept medicines purchased illegally over the internet. From 1941 the cost of medicines was subsidised and the number of prescriptions increased rapidly until the 1990s. From 2013 most people paid $5 per prescription for most medicines. The sale of nutritional supplements and homeopathic and naturopath remedies had also grown substantially.

How to cite this page:

Pauline Norris and Rosemary Beresford, 'Medicines and remedies', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 September 2023)

Story by Pauline Norris and Rosemary Beresford, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 23 May 2018, updated 1 Apr 2020