Dr Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People: TB Quackery in the 19th Century
By Julia Nurse
Tuberculosis (TB) is a disease that has been around since antiquity. It has gone by many names: phthisis (the original Greek name), consumption, the white plague – and many treatments have been offered over the years. One example of a patent medicine from the end of the 19th century is Dr Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People, which claimed to be a ‘miracle cure’ for consumption. An advertising pamphlet for the Pink Pills, intriguingly titled The Queen’s Gift has been digitised and is available online.
The pamphlet, published c.1900 at the height of the British Empire, is aimed at British colonists around the world. The gift that Queen Victoria bestowed was her extraordinarily successful reign, for “in no country of the world have prosperity, Science and Invention made more uninterrupted progress than in the United Kingdom, which Britons all over the world lovingly and reverently call HOME”. The pamphlet claims that in such an inspiring entrepreneurial environment Dr Williams was able to develop his Pink Pills, a “miracle of modern medicine”. The ‘pink’ aspect alluded to the return of a pink complexion to cured patients.
The pamphlet goes on to provide many testimonials from grateful patients cured by the pills. Among them is Mr Rogers, the “first Englishman to be cured of tubercular consumption”.
Miss Leah Stevens, of Tunbridge Wells, is another case: a consumptive for 7 years she had to be carried up and down the stairs she was so depleted of energy. She claims to feel better after just three days of taking the Pink Pills and 7 boxes later, she reported no other symptoms. Another teenage case is Miss Davis, who says she was so weakened by the disease that “you could see the light through her hand”. Kept alive by brandy and milk alone, she began to rally after taking the Pink Pills – “it was like raising her out of the grave”.
The pills didn’t just work their miracle on TB, they were also said to have cured a range of other diseases, helpfully listed at the end of the pamphlet. These included anaemia, paralysis and kidney and liver complaints.
The advertising blurb claimed the pills purified the blood by making new blood through enriching the existing weak or anaemic blood supply – in turn this would effectively “tone up the nerves and increase the patient’s power of using the food he takes”. Although ingredients are not listed within the pamphlet, A British Medical Association publication called Secret Remedies later disclosed the contents to be iron oxide, magnesium sulfate (iron supplements), powdered liquorice and sugar.
Originally produced and patented by Dr William Frederick Jackson, a physician in Ontario in 1866, the international success of the pills was due to the marketing skills of the Canadian politician, Senator George Taylor Fulford (uncle of the inventor of bile beans), listed in the Chemist and Druggist journal as the owner of of The Dr Williams Trading Co. He purchased the patent just after the influenza epidemic of 1891 to 1892.
Despite attempts to write it off as quackery, the product came to be advertised around the world in 82 countries. The pills and the “puffing literature” promoting them are roundly condemned in an Exposures of Quackery, 1897, and the very existence of a Dr Williams is questioned. For the purposes of this exposure, Mr George Selkirk Jones discovered that the pills contained merely “extract of Barbadoes aloes enclosed in a thin coating of sugar, coloured pink with carmine”. The pills continued to be sold through the 20th century, with several changes to the ingredients; they were eventually withdrawn in the UK in the 1970s (Homan, 2008).
Tuberculosis was a major concern before the development of antibiotics in the 20th century and desperate patients were willing to try any promise of a respite or cure. On World Tuberculosis Day, it’s worth remembering that TB still kills 1.5 million people a year, and with the rise of antibiotic resistant strains, the desperate search for a cure may not be resigned to history.
Originally published by Wellcome Library, 03.24.2015, under the terms of Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.