John Hill (1714 – 1775) and his Pectoral Balsam of Honey
Our latest quack, John Hill, was a noted botanist in his time and was a prolific writer, perhaps best known for his 26 volume The Vegetable System – its full title running to 58 words required a volume in itself. He was also a man of letters but was very disputatious and vexatious, traits which earned him many an enemy. Samuel Johnson described him as “an ingenious man but [who] had no veracity” and the actor David Garrick wrote of him, “for physics and farces, his equal scarce there is;/ his farces are physic, his physic a farce is.” The Swedes, the race that is not the vegetable, seemed to like him awarding a knighthood.
For a quack Hill was unusual in that he had a medical degree and he put this and his botanical knowledge to good use by creating a number of herbal-based remedies including the pectoral balm of honey. He used the monies earned from his medicines to fund the publication of his books and earned a considerable fortune.
Honey has a long medicinal history, the ancient Egyptians using it for embalming bodies and dressing wounds as well as an offering to the gods. Holisitic practitioners consider it to be one of nature’s best all-round remedies but scientific claims for its efficacy are unproven other than for the care of wounds and the suppression of coughs. When I have a tickle in my throat, I like to suck a honey flavoured lozenge.
The trouble with honey, though, is that concentrated honey was difficult to obtain in a quantity and at a cost that made a honey-based balsam commercially viable. The actual base for Hill’s balsam, according to the Modern Domestic Medicine of 1827 was an ounce of balsam of tolu – a South American resin which is still today used in cough syrups – a drachm of gum storax, fifteen grains of purified opium, four ounces of best honey and a pint of rectified spirit of wine. The brew was left to mix for five or six days and then strained. Voila.
As we have grown accustomed to expect, the advertising that accompanied the balsam was effusive in its praises. “..the unequalled efficacy and safety of this elegant Medicine in the immediate relief and gradual cure of coughs, colds, sore throats, hoarseness, difficulty of breathing, catarrhs, asthma and consumptions.” A large tea-spoonful mixed in a wine glass of water made a dose “converting the water into a most pleasant balsamic liquor, to be taken morning and evening.” Bottles sold at 3s 6d and bore the signature H.Hill – adverts warned the reader to be wary of imitations – and were available from 150, Oxford Street and a couple of outlets in the City and one in Borough.
Whether it worked or not is unclear but the mix of wine, opium, honey and tolu would not have been unpleasant to the taste, at least. But the principal ingredient of the balsam was tolu not honey as the Medical Observer of 1808 pointed out. “The Balsam of Tolu, from its fragrant aromatic smell, is a ready and cheap substitute [for the faff of producing concentrated honey]. This deception was first begun by Sir John Hill who..did not lose sight of a balsam of honey which is nothing less than a balsam of tolu sold under this name. We regret that a man of Sir John Hill’s abilities should have been put to such shifts.”
Hill’s ability to stir up a hornet’s nest survived his death but he did very nicely out of the sales, thank you very much.