Makin' Money

Ben Franklin and Big Pharma

Gregory Warner Nov 23, 2010

The history of medicine isn’t just a story about science. It’s also a story about money. A history of economic instruments, tried and perfected, that gave rise to the gigantic health care industry that we live with today.

This week when we eat turkey and cranberries and recall the stories of our early American forefathers, here’s one story you can tell when things get awkward with the family and silence descends over the squash pie. It’s a story about Ben Franklin and the birth of the health care consumer.

Poor Richard’s Almanack makes medicine a best-seller
It begins, as all these American stories seem to, with something that the Native Americans had and the early settlers did not: good medicine. In Philadelphia, America’s first city, the early urbanites were dying left and right from dysentery and pleurisy and other diseases of the New World. Meanwhile, the Native Americans knew about herbs in the local forest that cured various ailments. But they were keeping it all a secret.

Enter John Bartram: Philadelphia farmer, plant-lover, and founder of the first botanical garden in America. Bartram discovers the secret of a particular plant root said to cure rattlesnake bite and pleurisy (two big killers, apparently, in the colonial days). So Bartram shares the secret with his friend Ben Franklin who publishes the news in his “1737 Poor Richard’s Almanack” right there on the second page.

Ben Franklin creates the health care consumer
Franklin believed that in the New World, Americans needed to take charge of their own health. They needed information (what we might call the “informed patient“). But he also knew that an informed patient was more likely to buy… a product. Historians disagree about whether Franklin actually sold the “Rattlesnake root” out of his print shop, but everyone agrees he helped launch an industry in native medicinal plants.

Ben Franklin is just one of several historic moments in Philadelphia’s health care history. Learn about other highlights in our Interactive feature Healthy, Wealthy, & Wise: The Birth of the Business of Health Care

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