Waring Library Society Medical History Moment

By Ronald O. Nickel

Imagine that you and your family are enjoying a short holiday in the beautiful English countryside in June 1744, when your pleasant trip is interrupted by the sudden experience of excruciating pain that a local physician has diagnosed as originating from a large kidney stone. What treatment options do you have, other than hoping the stone will pass quickly or lessening the pain with doses of laudanum? The physician offers a third suggestion: An inexpensive patented medicine that claims to dissolve kidney stones has recently become available.

Mr. Turlington’s Balsam of Life, according to the accompanying 46-page brochure, was said to contain 27 active ingredients capable of curing the full range of disorders, including kidney and bladder stones, colic and “inward weakness.” Given that many British and colonial American citizens had limited if any accessible and/or affordable health care, self-care products became very popular and financially lucrative for their producers.

In May 1744, England’s King George II granted English merchant Robert Turlington a royal patent for his product called The Balsam of Life. This royal patent allowed Mr. Turlington to take legal action to prevent anyone attempting to duplicate his product. Even though he possessed a royal patent designed to protect his product from counterfeiting, Turlington took the additional precaution of packaging his product in a uniquely-shaped container that was difficult to duplicate. The singular shape was described as tablet-shaped, or even pear-shaped. It was reported that during the first decade of the product’s life that Turlington made at least four minor changes to the container design to continually stay ahead of potential counterfeiters. The final design was an elaborately embossed tablet-shaped container that became available in 1754. It is this bottle that is on display in the Waring Historical Library.

In spite of the royal patent and the multiple container design changes, Turlington’s Balsam of Life remained vulnerable to counterfeiters. One successful strategy used by the counterfeiters was to collect empty, used original bottles and fill them with liquid which looked and perhaps tasted similar to the original product. Because this strategy was limited by the number of original containers they could find, counterfeiters eventually found glass manufacturers capable and willing to produce new bottles that looked more or less like the original containers. Since both the original Balsam of Life and some counterfeit product were sold well into the 20th century, collectors of antique medicine containers must be aware of the differences between the originals and the bogus containers.

Given the length of time that the Balsam of Life continued to be available on the patent medicine market, two questions asked of almost all patent medicine should be applied to this product: What ingredients did the product actually contain and was the product effective for the medical conditions claimed by the producers and endorsers? An analysis of a sample of original Balsam of Life revealed that the product’s primary ingredients were benzoin, a fragrant natural resin and ethyl alcohol. This solution has no known therapeutic use for internal medical problems (such as the kidney stones it was purported to cure, for example). However, a benzoin tincture has been used externally on canker sores and fever blisters or in steam vaporizers to be inhaled by those with bronchial conditions. A somewhat related product, Compound Tincture of Benzoin, which also contains storax and cape aloe, has been used topically as a skin protectant or to make bandages adhere longer. Army medics who had to drain soldiers’ blisters reported that they refilled the evacuated blister space with Compound Tincture of Benzoin. This procedure was known among the soldiers as “the hot shot” due to the brief but very intense pain caused by the tincture.

The Waring Library Society is a “friends of the library” organization which supports the mission of the Waring Historical Library. Named for Joseph I. Waring, Jr., its first director, the Waring Historical Library preserves rare books, manuscripts and museum artifacts documenting the history of the health sciences in South Carolina and the Southeast. To learn more about the Waring’s programs and events or to become a member of the society, please visit waring.library.musc.edu.

Mercury newspaper racks are located at the following locations:

The Meeting Street Inn

Clair's Service Station at 334 Folly Rd.

Harris Teeter on Houston-Northcutt Blvd.

The Square Onion in I'On

Mt. Pleasant Library on Mathis Ferry Rd.