Artifact Corner: Winchester’s Tuberculosis Cure

Hi Everyone and welcome back to another artifact corner. Today we will be looking at a bottle from Fannie Delord Webb Hall’s apothecary. Fannie treated the sick and poor of Plattsburgh and the surrounding community free of charge from the back room in our museum, and this is one of a myriad of treatments she offered. This particular bottle is made by Winchester’s and was marketed as a cure for consumption. Let’s learn a bit more about Winchester’s and about consumption and Victorian Medicine.

This concoction was made by Winchester and Company Chemists, located at 263 William Street, New York, NY. The company moved around quite a bit through the mid to late Victorian period, but was always stationed somewhere in New York City. Like many medicinal companies in the United States in the 19th Century, they were able to manufacture and sell basically anything in a bottle with little to no regulation by the federal government. Congress passed The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act in 1938, which requires that new drugs show safety before a company can start selling them. Prior to that, the only regulations put on medicines were on imported drugs. So, if you were an unscrupulous business person, you could put practically anything non lethal in a bottle, slap a label on it, and sell it as a cure all. This particular bottle of Hypophosphites of lime and soda was sold as a treatment for consumption or tuberculosis. It claims that just a few teaspoons a week will prevent you from contracting TB, and that if you already have TB, a few teaspoons a day will treat it for you. Of course this claim was untrue. Taking a few teaspoons of what amounts to a salt mixture is not going to cure consumption, but that didn’t stop thousands of merchants from selling their potions.

Now you might ask yourself, why on earth would someone buy and consume an unproven drug? The answer is a bit complicated. Victorian medicine was improving upon the centuries prior, but to our modern understanding, was still quite antiquated. The people relying on this medicine were ill, and looking for something to ease their suffering and therefore willing to give just about anything a shot. Consumption or Tuberculosis was an ever present part of Victorian life. By the dawn of the 19th Century, consumption as the ancient Greeks called it, had killed one in seven of all the people that have ever lived. It was known as the Great White Plague, due to how pale the victims of TB became. Doctor’s initially thought it was hereditary, due to how often the disease was passed from parents to their children. But, consumption is actually a highly transmissible bacteria infection that attacked the lungs. The symptoms of consumption are quite brutal. The patient will have high fevers, bloody coughs, extreme exhaustion, and severe weight-loss. Consumption was a wasting disease, so often you could tell if someone was ill by their gaunt appearance. It ravaged people of all ages, socio-economic standing, religion, and race. Being diagnosed with TB in the 19th Century was basically a death sentence, as none of the treatments being offered could cure the patient of the disease. It wasn’t until 1904, when Doctor Edward Livingston Trudeau formed the National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis, which would later become the American Lung Association, that the American public began working together to eradicate TB. In 1950, Dr. Edith Lincoln observed that isoniazid, the primary medication against TB, prevented the development of serious complications in children. Later Public Health Service trials underscored isoniazid’s important ability to prevent the spread of infection when given to household members of tuberculosis patients. Thankfully, these efforts to prevent and treat TB in the US have worked. In 2019 there were 526 deaths from TB in the United States. In 2020 there were 1.5 million deaths from TB around the world, and is the second leading infectious disease in the world, second only to COVID-19. Consumption or TB is still a very dangerous and deadly disease if not properly treated. So, you can see why people were so afraid of it, and willing to try any means of treatment.

This bottle is in great condition. We still have the original paper label, the original cork stopper, and some of the contents of the medicine, although, I would not recommend partaking of any Victorian medicines! There is some fading and foxing on the label, but that’s a normal condition with age and use. This bottle offers us a unique glimpse into mid-19th Century, and we are so lucky to have it in our collections. Thanks so much for stopping by.

Music: Acoustic Breeze by Benjamin Tissot,