Before the onetime sassafras-based “root beer” of today, sarsaparilla (pronounced “sass-puh-RILL-uh”; Smilax sp.) reigned as America’s vine for flavoring beverages and remedies. Originally a Native American treatment for gastrointestinal and dermatologic complaints, sarsaparilla began to be used for “blood disorders,” scurvy, scrofula, syphilis, and even leprosy. Popularizing this panacea was Vermont native Charles Ira Hood (1845 to 1922), who had moved to Lowell, Massachusetts, to apprentice as a pharmacist. After compounding his namesake sarsaparilla in 1876, Hood marketed it nationally with color lithographs of various characters reading a Hood’s Latest advertising magazine (left). Here, Uncle Sam rests his legs on an hourglass—suggesting the nostrum’s speedy onset—and reads the same booklet as the reader—hinting at its recurring effect. Rapid relief did not owe to the gentian, dandelion, and juniper berries that were also mixed in; rather, swift southern (New England) comfort likely came from sarsaparilla’s 18% alcohol content…. (Copyright © the American Society of Anesthesiologists’ Wood Library-Museum of Anesthesiology.)

Before the onetime sassafras-based “root beer” of today, sarsaparilla (pronounced “sass-puh-RILL-uh”; Smilax sp.) reigned as America’s vine for flavoring beverages and remedies. Originally a Native American treatment for gastrointestinal and dermatologic complaints, sarsaparilla began to be used for “blood disorders,” scurvy, scrofula, syphilis, and even leprosy. Popularizing this panacea was Vermont native Charles Ira Hood (1845 to 1922), who had moved to Lowell, Massachusetts, to apprentice as a pharmacist. After compounding his namesake sarsaparilla in 1876, Hood marketed it nationally with color lithographs of various characters reading a Hood’s Latest advertising magazine (left). Here, Uncle Sam rests his legs on an hourglass—suggesting the nostrum’s speedy onset—and reads the same booklet as the reader—hinting at its recurring effect. Rapid relief did not owe to the gentian, dandelion, and juniper berries that were also mixed in; rather, swift southern (New England) comfort likely came from sarsaparilla’s 18% alcohol content…. (Copyright © the American Society of Anesthesiologists’ Wood Library-Museum of Anesthesiology.)

Jane S. Moon, M.D., University of California, Los Angeles, California, and George S. Bause, M.D., M.P.H., Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio.