Kōrero: Medicines and remedies

Whārangi 2. Plant extracts to modern drugs, 1900 to 1930s

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Regulation of patent medicines

The government attempted to regulate patent medicines at the beginning of the 20th century. Regulations issued in 1904 stated that bottles or boxes containing patent medicines were to be labelled in English with details of the ingredients they contained, together with the quantities of each ingredient.

Manufacturers responded that they would no longer sell their products in New Zealand. Distributors and individuals who sold patent medicines claimed their businesses would fail and patients would suffer if the medicines were not available. These protests were successful and the regulations were revoked. Listing ingredients was not made compulsory until 1946.

Out of print


Government attempts to introduce compulsory labelling of ingredients on patent medicine boxes and bottles was cause for concern to the Master Printers, Lithographers and Bookbinders’ Association. They believed that ‘printing and allied trades will be seriously affected, and much loss of employment by their workmen will result’ if the regulation was enforced and medicine stopped being sold.


The Quackery Prevention Act 1908 made it an offence to publish a false statement about the efficacy of any medicine. However, defendants could usually produce testimony that such remedies worked, so prosecutions were generally unsuccessful.

Māori healers were the target of the Tohunga Suppression Act 1907, which allowed the prosecution of any person ‘who misleads or attempts to mislead any Maori by professing or pretending to possess supernatural powers in the treatment or cure of any disease.’ Few successful prosecutions were brought.

Regulation of new drugs

The pharmaceutical industry expanded rapidly in the early 20th century as drugs were synthesised in laboratories and manufactured in commercial quantities. They were sold to the public by doctors and pharmacists in easy-to-swallow formulations such as tablets and capsules. Pharmacists were now less involved in the preparation of medicines.

The potency of these new medicines prompted governments to pass laws to control their sale and use. The Dangerous Drugs Act 1927 attempted to control potentially addictive medicines. The Poisons Act 1934 identified medicines which could be harmful (though were not addictive). Such medicines could only be sold by a pharmacist if a registered doctor prescribed them.

Effective medicines

Significant vitamins and hormones were identified by overseas researchers during this period. Insulin (used to treat diabetes) was first isolated in the early 1920s, and vitamins A, B, C and D were synthesised from the 1930s. Oestrogen was used to treat menopausal symptoms, such as hot flushes, from the 1930s. The important antibiotic prontosil was discovered in 1932 and used to treat people suffering from bacterial infections. This signalled the beginning of the ‘therapeutic revolution’ – the transformation that made medicines more effective.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Feilding Star, 23 November 1904, p. 2. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Pauline Norris and Rosemary Beresford, 'Medicines and remedies - Plant extracts to modern drugs, 1900 to 1930s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/medicines-and-remedies/page-2 (accessed 16 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Pauline Norris and Rosemary Beresford, i tāngia i te 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 23 May 2018, updated 1 Apr 2020