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D'Youville College building site has peculiar past Patent medicines once prescribed on property soon to be developed for pharmacy program

There's an interesting story about the building D'Youville College is constructing on campus for a pharmacy program.

Oddly enough, it's going up on the same site made famous more than 130 years ago for -- what else? -- patent medicines.

In those days, a spectacular hotel and hospital rose along Prospect Avenue where the sick, but well-to-do, came from all over for the exotic elixirs and bizarre remedies concocted to treat everything from hemorrhoids to heart disease.

Then, shortly after it opened in 1877, it was gone -- destroyed by fire. Pierce's Palace Hotel and its millionaire owner, Dr. Ray Vaughn Pierce, faded into Buffalo history.

"He's disappeared into the mist," said Dick Hirsch, a local freelance writer who did a piece on Pierce for Western New York Heritage Magazine. "Nobody's really ever heard of him."

But D'Youville's plans to start a pharmacy program on the site have conjured up recollections of its history, and of the Buffalo "quack" whose prescriptions made him a fortune.

Born in 1840, Pierce got his medical degree from the Eclectic Medical College of Cincinnati. He had a rural practice in Pennsylvania, before moving in 1866 to Buffalo, where he opened a small office on Clinton Street.

But the ambitious Pierce had bigger plans. He had begun concocting his own medical treatments during an era when the patent medicine industry boomed, and people counted on home remedies that may or may not have actually worked.

There was Dr. Pierce's Golden Medical Discovery and Dr. Pierce's Favorite Prescription and Dr. Pierce's Pleasant Purgative Pellets and Dr. Pierce's Compound Extract of Smart Weed, a liquid brew of wild yam, Jamaica dogwood, extract of Jamaica ginger and gum camphor. His book, "The People's Common Sense Medical Advisor," was wildly popular.

Of course, as Hirsch noted, Pierce had many a critic from the traditional medical establishment. He was denounced as a glamorous snake-oil salesman, who peddled products containing alcohol and opium at a time when the industry had no government oversight.

"A lot of people called it quackery," said Lewis Pierce, Pierce's great-grandson from Amherst.

Nonetheless, Pierce proved to be a marketing wizard, advertising and distributing his products throughout the world, while reportedly raking in a half-million dollars a year.

He built Pierce's Palace Hotel -- an architectural gem with 250 rooms, a billiard room and gymnasium, as well as elevators and telephones.

"Buffalo back then was one of the greatest cities in the country," said Lewis Pierce, the family historian. "The Erie Canal was going strong. It was a bustling area -- when Buffalo was at its hottest."

And Pierce, himself, became one of Buffalo's most prominent people.

He served in the State Senate, and was a Republican member of Congress for a couple of years. Pierce -- no relation to the carmakers of the same name -- was one of the first in Buffalo to own an automobile, and even bought an island off Florida, where he shipped in exotic animals from around the world.

But in the winter of 1881, his magnificent sanatorium was ravaged by fire and burned to the ground. The Grey Nuns, who founded D'Youville, had an academy for girls next door on Porter Avenue, and eventually took over the property where the college now stands.

Pierce carried on. He built the Invalids' Hotel & Surgical Institute, a grand brick building on Main Street, near the dispensary where his medicines were manufactured, bottled and shipped.

Pierce died in 1914 at age 74. The hospital closed in 1940, but the Pierce family continued to manufacture many of the products before finally selling the business in 1960.

Lewis Pierce even remembers getting a dose of Dr. Pierce's Golden Medical Discovery as a child.

"It was black, and tasted like herbs and roots right out of the ground," he said. "It tasted too disgusting for me."

D'Youville still awaits the proper approvals to start a pharmacy program, but the building should begin going up soon, said John Bray, D'Youville spokesman. Its opening is scheduled for this fall or spring 2010, he said, when there will probably be some acknowledgment of 'ol Doc Pierce.

"I was aware of the history, and thought it was very appropriate that we're proposing a pharmacy school at the site of Dr. Pierce's emporium," Bray said. "He'd be proud."

The peculiar coincidence isn't lost on Pierce's descendents, either.

"It's very interesting," said Lewis Pierce. "What goes around comes around."

e-mail: jrey@buffnews.com

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