Nickell Collection of Dr. R.V. Pierce Medical Artifacts

It was in Buffalo where Pierce really began his ascendency to fame as a leading seller of mail-order patent medicines, including "Dr. Pierce's Golden Medical Discovery Pills," "Dr. Pierce's Favorite Prescription Tablets," and "Dr. Pierce's Pleasant Pellets." Many of Pierce's cures were aimed at addressing "female illnesses." Pierce's medicines, like several other remedies available at the time, would often include alcohol and opium.

The enormous demand created for Pierce's remedies led to his building of the World's Dispensary Building (664 Washington Street), from where his numerous cures were manufactured, packaged, and distributed to people around the world. Pierce went on to establish Pierce's Palace Hotel in 1878 to accommodate the many patients who came flocking to seek his apparent curative skills. The building burned down in 1881 and was replaced with the Invalids Hotel and Surgical Institute (at 663 Main Street). Pierce also had a facility in London, England. Pierce incorporated his entire medical "empire" under the name World's Dispensary Medical Association in 1883. Later, the company became "Pierce's Proprietaries" and continued under the supervision of his son, Dr. Valentine Mott Pierce, until the late 1940s.

Perhaps the most significant accomplishment of Dr. Pierce was his ability to market and sell his medicines more successfully than almost any other physician at a time when availability of home remedies and nostrum cures were at their height. His descriptions of illnesses and their symptoms, with just the right amount of medical terminology and human pathos for cures, made them seem authentic and scientifically possible. Pierce was a master of the media, using newspapers, broadsides, and later billboards, to saturate the country with word of his success. Many of the original signs painted on barns and other buildings can still be seen along the roads and highways throughout the U.S.

Another marketing skill employed by Pierce was that of the testimonial. His advertising, which includes his book, The People's Common Sense Medical Adviser (essentially an advertisement for his various products), sold millions of copies, and included testimonials from patients whose claims of near-miraculous cures convinced millions of people to try the remedies of Dr. Pierce. In some ways, the media-savvy skills of Pierce and the resounding public response to his bold assurances of cures sound remarkably like today's media campaigns waged by various pharmaceutical companies.

Pierce was a strong proponent of free enterprise, and took a lead in the fight against the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. He also was involved in a lawsuit against The Ladies Home Journal, which tested "Dr. Pierce's Favorite Prescription" and reportedly found traces of opium, digitalis, and alcohol (Pierce actually won the case).

Pierce also served as a New York State Senator from 1878-1879 and then as a Republican representative for the 32nd Congressional District of New York in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1879-1880, when he resigned due to ill health.

Pierce spent his last years in his winter home in St. Vincent, Florida, where he passed away in 1914. He is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, NY.

Related Resources

Collection owner: Center for Inquiry Libraries