Dr King’s New Discovery for Consumption
Some diseases, which are still with us, have changed their names over time. A major killer in the 19th century was consumption. We now know this wasting disease as tuberculosis and whilst there are vaccines available to immunise you, I still read of outbreaks in the press. In the days before the vaccine had been discovered, the consumptive proved to be fair game for the practitioners of the art of quackery. One such was Herbert E Bucklen.
In around 1878 Buckland purchased the rights to some patent medicines from a Dr Z.L.King and moved the business from Elkhart in Indiana to Chicago. The crown jewel in his Gladstone bag was King’s rather prosaically named New Discovery which was aimed specifically at consumptives. Bucklen was a tireless advertiser – no journal was too big or small – and by 1885 he had established the New Discovery as a nationally recognised brand. His major coup came in 1893 when at the Chicago World Fair he offered for 50 cents a 31 page booklet which contained colour lithographs of the world fair buildings together with extensive advertising for his products.
Naturally, the advertising was fulsome. Adverts proclaimed that the New Discovery was the only sure cure for consumption in the world and that it struck terror to the doctors, presumably because it showed their inadequacy with dealing with what was hitherto nigh on incurable. It was also efficacious, the ads went on, in dealing with “all diseases of the throat, chest and lungs and permanently cures coughs, asthma, bronchitis, incipient consumption, lung fever, pneumonia, loss of voice…” – the list goes on and on. The copy becomes almost lyrical when it describes the perils of delay; “delay not a moment when that hacking cough and flushed cheek admonish you that the insidious viper, Consumption, is secretly gnawing at the vitals and, ere long, your doom will be sealed.”
All the patient had to do was send off for a free sample and then further bottles would be available for just one dollar a time. The patient was warned to beware all imitations and make sure that they only consumed the potion bearing Dr King’s name. The advertising worked, bottles flew off the shelves and Bucklen made a fortune.
The big questions, though, were what was in it and did it work? Well, what might fill honest medical practitioners with a degree of dread was that it was a mix of morphine and chloroform. For the consumptive, this was a pretty deadly concoction. The chloroform would supress the cough – a tick in the box there, then – but the problem was that it would suppress the natural reaction to try and clear the lungs of the stuff that was blocking them. Regular ingestion of morphine would induce a cheery disposition in the patient and the sense amongst relatives that the potion might be working. So a vicious circle would develop, hastening their eventual demise.
Naturally, there was no warning as to the potential harm that regular doses of the New Discovery could cause, either in the advertising or on the label of the bottles. After all, the aim of the game was to maximise sales, not to look after the patient’s welfare. It took exposure from the likes of the Journal of the American Medical Association and Samuel Hopkins Adams in his book, the Great American Fraud, to bring Bucklen’s money-making scam crashing down.