John S Dowden, Editor, Australian Prescriber

In August 1907 the Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia received the report of the Royal Commission on Secret Drugs, Cures and Foods.1This revealed the widespread promotion and purchase of dangerous and useless medicines. Then, as now, there was political concern about Australia's population growth and the report contended that nostrums had brought about a decline in fertility and increased infant mortality.

The declining birth rate of the recently federated country was of particular concern to Octavius Beale, a piano manufacturer from Sydney. He therefore persuaded Prime Minister Alfred Deakin to establish the Royal Commission. The Prime Minister agreed as long as his government did not have to pay anything. Beale therefore funded the inquiry himself. This included travel to Britain, Germany, Canada and the USA.

The 431 page report seems very moralistic, portraying the manufacturers of medicines as 'gilded miscreants' engaged in the 'multifarious evils of the traffic in secret drugs'. These medicines were 'not subject to preliminary examination, license and inspection', so Beale proposed legislation for the compulsory registration of products. He may therefore have begun a process which ultimately led to the foundation of the Therapeutic Goods Administration.

Beale found that newspapers and magazines were publishing stories which were really promotional pieces, in addition to accepting advertising for unproven medicines. Even then the marketing was sophisticated with companies buying and selling the names of pharmacists' customers. Beale therefore proposed a ban on pharmaceutical advertising.

In 1907 little information was disclosed about medicines, particularly their active ingredients. Beale said, 'The preservation of secrecy... is absolutely indispensable to the traders whose traffic is reported upon...'. One hundred years later, 'commercial-in-confidence' is still a barrier to our understanding of complementary medicines.2

Acknowledgement: former Editor of Australian Prescriber, Dr John McEwen, for unearthing the report.


  1. Report by Royal Commission on Secret Drugs, Cures and Foods. Beale OC. Parliament, Australia. Sydney: Commonwealth of Australia; 1907.
  2. Dowden JS. Injunction impedes independent information. Aust Prescr 2006;29:120.