Cure-all history quite the tonic

Remedies featured in Pills & Potions. Photos supplied.
Remedies featured in Pills & Potions. Photos supplied.
Remedies featured in Pills & Potions. Photos supplied.
Remedies featured in Pills & Potions. Photos supplied.
Remedies featured in Pills & Potions. Photos supplied.
Remedies featured in Pills & Potions. Photos supplied.
PILLS & POTIONS: At The Cotter Medical History Trust by Claire Le Couteur. Published by Otago...
PILLS & POTIONS: At The Cotter Medical History Trust by Claire Le Couteur. Published by Otago University Press.

You know you are getting old if you remember taking any of the over-the-counter potions featured in this entertaining and informative book.

Bonnington's Irish Moss, Lane's Emulsion, Buckley's Canadiol and Clements Tonic were all in our home medicine cabinet.

While I still shudder at the memory of Lane's Emulsion (made in Oamaru until 1984), I cannot recall ever taking the Australian-made Clements Tonic. After reading this early advertisement for it, I almost wish I did.

''Fellow Australians, we don't want the Yankee quack to dump his ship-loads of clap-trap fooleries and cure-alls on our Australian shores, and fool us with his smooth tongue and plausible humbug; neither do we want him to suck the vitality and marrow out of our people with his consignments of chemical slops, which with specious plausibility he guarantees to cure everything from epilepsy to impecuniosity.''

Some of the other names in Claire Le Couteur's selection of about 100 popular medical remedies from the Cotter Medical History Trust's collection in Christchurch also seem familiar, including Kolynos tooth powder.

Most of the featured items were on sale in New Zealand in the late 19th and early 20th century. Gout remedies, laxatives, nerve tonics, hair restorers, catarrh cures, indigestion pills, blood purifiers, vitamin treatments, thermal wool, and rat poison (the odd man out) are among the concoctions, each with a photograph attractively displayed beside information about their history and make-up (if known).

It is fun to dip into this book, perhaps starting with the names you recognise. Although it is in alphabetical order, an index would have been helpful, too.

A favourite for me was Antipon, a weight-loss product containing citric acid, red food colouring, alcohol (0.4%) and water. As well as claiming to reduce your weight dramatically in the first 24 hours it was also supposed to result in ''the removal of the clogging masses of superfluous internal fatty matter that hamper vital machinery''.

Le Couteur tells us that in 1934 the Minister of Agriculture, C. E. MacMillan took this because his family had become alarmed at his ''increasing proportions''. He thrived on a case of the stuff sent from England but did not admit to any weight loss as a result.

We might laugh at such folly, but I wonder if many of the potions peddled today are much more effective. Ship-loads of clap-trap fooleries indeed.

- Elspeth McLean is a columnist and former ODT health reporter.

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