A wry view of life for the world-weary

Quacks Pretend To Cure Other Men’s Disorders But Rarely Find A Cure For Their Own – Part Twenty Two


Dr Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People

Feeling a bit run down? If your answer to this question was in the affirmative in the last years of the 19th century or the early part of the 20th century you may have been recommended to give the latest panacea to fall under our microscope of quackery, the alliteratively named Pink Pills for Pale People.

The pills were originally developed by a Canadian doctor, Dr William Jackson, presumably the eponymous Dr William although the apostrophe after s suggests that Williams was either a surname (and therefore not Jackson) or there was a plurality of Williams or, perhaps, this was an early example of grocer’s apostrophe (or should that by pharmacist’s). Anyway Jackson sold the recipe and the rights to the pills to George Taylor Fulford for $53.01, a business deal that would make Fulford’s fortune.

Clever marketing and grandiose claims were foundations upon which Fulford built his success. An advertisement of the time claimed that the pills were “a great blood builder and blood tonic” which cures “anaemia, all nervous diseases, locomotor alaxia, paralysis, rheumatism, sciatica, headache, all female weaknesses, suppressions of the period, pale and sallow complexions, all diseases arising from mental worry, over work, excess, early decay etc”. What couldn’t it do? And to appeal to the thrifty this cure-all was available at 50 cents a box or 6 boxes for $2.50.

Testimonials from grateful patients was also part of Fulford’s marketing pitch. Often the ads would feature someone, usually a child for maximum emotional effect, whose medical condition was such that no other treatment could remedy their condition other than Fulford’s Pink Pills. Another advocate featured heavily in advertisements was the Reverend Enoch Hill who claimed that the pills cured his headaches and gave him energy. This endorsement was powerful because a man of the cloth was thought of being capable of doing anything other than telling the truth.

Another feature of the ads was that they were often very similar in font and layout to the editorial copy of the newspaper in which they were positioned, suggesting to the unsuspecting reader that this was factual reporting on the newspaper’s part rather than a paid for piece of marketing puffery. So successful was the marketing that the pills were sold in over 80 countries and were widely used throughout the British Empire as a means, as one commentator described it, of alleviating the pressures of the white man’s burden.

Ominously, the adverts referred to instructions inside the wrapper which, of course, you could only do after purchase. To the disappointment of many a purchaser they would find an admission that it was not a cure-all but was likely to be more effective if the medication was taken regularly over a period of time. Sometimes, in order for the pills to work the patient had to avoid lascivious thoughts and live a pure and manly life.

True to the word (at least in the inside wrapper) the pills weren’t a panacea. Consisting of iron and magnesium sulphate it probably did some good for those suffering from anaemia but there was less iron in the tablets than in those could be obtained from your doctor and, of course, the Pink Pills were more expensive.

Rather like the British Empire their day waned and they are no longer available for sale.

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