Story: Medicines and remedies

Page 1. Plants, pills and poultices before 1900

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Early Māori medicines – rongoa rākau

Traditional Māori communities used medicines prepared by tohunga using fresh or dried plant materials. Common preparations included an infusion of flax root for constipation, koromiko leaves steeped in warm water to treat both diarrhoea and constipation; and kawakawa leaves for stomach upsets and toothache.

European medicines

Early European inhabitants also used medicines prepared from plants, such as peppermint for digestive troubles, valerian for insomnia and opium for severe pain. These were obtained from local missionaries or from supplies held by visiting seamen. In the 1840s, European settlers were advised to bring their own medicines with them if they could.

Patent medicines

Patent medicine was the common name for trademarked medicinal preparations sold under brand names. They could be bought at fairs, in general stores and in some pharmacies without consulting a doctor. Initially they were expensive to import. By the later 19th century, however, large quantities of these patent medicines were being imported from the United States and Britain, which lowered the cost.

Powerful brew


Chlorodyne, a popular patent medicine sold under various brand names in the 19th and early 20th centuries, contained ingredients like chloroform, morphine and extract of cannabis – a potent mix of highly addictive substances. Often fatal when taken in large quantities, it was implicated in many accidental deaths and suicides during this period.


The labels usually gave no indication of the medicines’ contents (which were commercial secrets), but did make extravagant and often unfounded claims about their effectiveness. They were usually mixtures of mainly purgative plants, such as rhubarb and aloes, some with soap and ginger added. These had a laxative effect which may have been of some benefit to users. Many contained opium and had a high alcohol content – up to 40% – which eased pain and produced a sense of well-being. Even children were dosed with these medicines, occasionally with fatal results.

Patent medicines were popular because they were extensively, attractively and persuasively advertised in magazines and newspapers and through trade or ‘show’ cards. Advertisements often included endorsements by doctors and testimonials from satisfied customers.

Beginning of the pharmaceutical industry

From the late 19th century, ready-made and fully-labelled medicines were manufactured by a growing number of international pharmaceutical companies. These medicines were developed after pharmacists and pharmacologists succeeded in isolating the individual active components of various plant extracts. The demand for these powerful medicines led to the development of large-scale manufacturing industries in Europe and the United States, and the creation of synthetic chemicals, including anaesthetics and analgesics (medicines that eliminate or reduce pain), such as aspirin.

How to cite this page:

Pauline Norris and Rosemary Beresford, 'Medicines and remedies - Plants, pills and poultices before 1900', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 June 2024)

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