The Story of Perry Davis and His Painkiller

Perry Davis (1791–1862) was born in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, on July 7, 1791. His parents owned no property and thus did not even show up on tax records at the time of Davis’ birth. By 1837, he had tried, unsuccessfully, to start multiple businesses, leaving him $4500 in debt. In 1840, Davis became so sick that his pain was debilitating. His solution? A mix of alcohol, opiates, and herbs, which would later be dubbed “Perry Davis’ Painkiller.”

When a fire burned down Davis’ home in 1843, out of necessity, he decided to sell and distribute his painkiller. A natural salesman, he found wild success at markets and fairs. His painkiller was seen as revolutionary since it offered relief from a variety of pain, and was not restricted to treating specific illnesses. Though it is a well-known and generic term to us today, “painkiller” was swiftly trademarked by Perry Davis, who took competitors to court when they tried to poach the label for their own medications. ⁠

Perry Davis’ Painkiller – Museum of Health Care 1977.12.43 a-b
Perry Davis’ Vegetable Painkiller [advertising trade card] – Museum of Health Care 996001414
Perry Davis’ Vegetable Painkiller [advertising trade card reversed] – Museum of Health Care 996001414

Despite the poor luck that followed him all his life, by the time of his death, Davis would be one of the richest men in Providence. He engaged in local politics, religious life, and philanthropy. His painkiller travelled the world with Christian missionaries who brought the concoction wherever American ships could be found. Davis’ son and grandson continued to sell the painkiller after Perry Davis’ death, but the company founded by Davis (Davis and Son) disappeared after 1940. ⁠

For more experimental and dangerous medicines, come and check out our Quack Gallery at the Museum, or visit our online collection catalogue by clicking the button below!

Elisabeth Pinto (Public Programs Assistant 2022)
Elisabeth Pinto (Public Programs Assistant 2022)

Elisabeth Pinto is entering the final year of her History undergraduate degree at Queen’s University. As a Public Programs Assistant, she spends her days giving tours in and around the museum. Working at the Museum of Health Care has given her a great appreciation for modern medicine.

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