A wry view of life for the world-weary

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

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.


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

Dennis Dupuis and Radol

A few months ago I found a lump on my neck and decided to get it checked out. Fortunately it turned out to be benign but a century or so ago I may have been interested in a nostrum plugged heavily by a Dr Rupert Wells from St Louis – his real name was Dennis Dupuis. The adverts offered hope to those who had contracted any form of cancer. A typical example was this advert from 1907; “I have discovered a new and seemingly unfailing remedy for the deadly cancer. I have made some most astonishing cures. I believe every person with cancer should know of this marvellous medicine and its wonderful cures, and I will be glad to give full information to those who write me and tell me about their case”.

The symptoms that the respondent described would always convince Wells that they had a form of cancer or consumption, if they responded to the consumption advert. They would receive a standard letter which was so designed that all the ingenious Wells had to do, as well as fill in the date and name and address of the would-be victim, was to enter the location of the body where the cancer was located. The letter boasted of Wells’ credentials – he had carried out investigations into radium-administration at the college where he was a professor, hogwash all – and claimed that he was able to cure consumption and cancer through the internal and external application of Radol, a proprietary brand containing radium in fluid form. It went on to claim he had effected many cures and, of course, contained testimonials of some grateful recipients of this wonder cure.

For ten dollars you would receive a nice bell-shaped, blue-coloured bottle, standing ten inches tall with a four and a half inch diameter. The label affixed to it claimed “This bottle contains Radol, a radium impregnated fluid, prepared according to the formula and under the supervision of Dr. Rupert Wells. St. Louis MO. This fluid is not expected to retain its radio activity beyond 40 days from the date of this label.” To add extra authenticity the label would then detail the name and address of the customer and directions for use which were basically to take a tablespoon in a wineglass of water before each meal and at bed time. This was followed by the name and address of the customer, directions for use e.g. “take one tablespoon in a wineglass of water before each meal and at bed-time.

Radol was only available by mail and for a while, though, Wells was on to a good thing, In 1908 he shipped out some 7,800 bottles at ten dollars a time. But what was in it and was it any good? Wells claimed that the bluish fluorescent glow of the liquid was down to the radium contained it. But tests carried out by Lederle Laboratories showed that it was a mix of quinine sulphate and alcohol, a combination which would also produce a bluish glow. As the exposer of quackery, Samuel Adams, wrote in his The Great American Fraud, “Radol contains exactly as much radium as dishwater and is about as efficacious in cancer or consumption.

Following this revelation Wells was put out of business in 1910 when the US Mail refused to handle his packages.