Tag Archives: Dr Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People

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


Bile Beans or Charles Forde’s Bile Beans for Biliousness

Today when marketing is king no one would launch a product called Bile Beans but at least there was no doubt as to what they were and what they were supposed to do. Astonishingly, despite their chequered history which we will discuss below, they were still available to buy in the 1980s, some ninety years after their launch.

Bile Beans were first sold in Australia in 1897 as Gould’s Bile Beans by Charles Fulford and Ernest Gilbert. Attentive readers may think that the surname Fulford rang a bell – yes, he was the nephew of George Taylor Fulford who had launched Dr Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People on to the unsuspecting world and had travelled down under to flog his uncle’s medicament. Quackery, it seems, can run in the family.

From Australia Fulford and Gilbert came to England, establishing the Bile Bean Manufacturing Company in Leeds in 1899. Whatever were the origins of the bile bean product by the time it had got to West Yorkshire it had undergone a miraculous transformation. The intrepid duo claimed that the formula for their product was based on a vegetable source known only to the poor put-upon native Australians and which had been brought to their attention by one Charles Forde. As you might expect, Charles Forde didn’t exist, being an alias for Fulford, doubtless to hide his lack of scientific qualifications.

In the quack tradition the product was heavily marketed, Fulford’s company spending upwards of £60,000 a year, a prodigious amount of money, on advertising in newspapers, on placards and special pamphlets. He was inventive in his marketing approach, getting his elder brother, Frank, to compose the Bile Bean March, the sheet music for which was available if you sent your name and address. In 1933 when Radio Luxembourg started running English language commercials, the first advert it broadcast was for Fulford’s Bile Beans.

Inevitably, the adverts were fulsome in their praise of the product, often taking the form of testimonials, claiming the efficacy of the pills which provided miraculous life-changing cures. Letters from customers claimed that the beans had cured lost appetites, severe headaches, indigestion and biliousness. The ads were particularly targeted at women, promising them health, bright eyes and a slim figure if taken regularly.

The first set-back came as early as 1903 when the British Medical Journal published an analysis of the ingredients of the pills. Far from being made from the extract of some wondrous Australian vegetable, the chief ingredients were to be found in any self-respecting chemist’s at the time, namely cascara, rhubarb, liquorice and menthol encased in gelatine-coated pill.

Worse was to follow in 1905 when Fulford sued an Edinburgh chemist, George Davison, for passing off, the common law tort used to enforce unregistered trade marks. But the judge and the Court of Appeal found against our quack, saying that his business was founded on and conducted by fraud, there being no secret ingredient and no connection with any plant found in Australia. In summary, he had defrauded the public by making false factual statements about the product.

Astonishingly, the product survived this damning judgment, some commentators believing that the newspapers were so reliant upon Fulford’s advertising revenue that they suppressed (and were required contractually to do so) any adverse reporting on the product. Fulford’s estate, when he died in 1906 was valued in today’s terms at £125m and Frank, who took over the business, bought Headingley Castle in 1909 and donated works of art to the museum at Temple Newsam.

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.