Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Great Balls of Smoke

      On the shelf above the bureau is a collection of medical curios. I have not consciously gone out to collect medical equipment, I’ve just accrued a selection over the years. The brass mortars and pestles I bought originally to use in the kitchen, for grinding spices when making curries. I’ve no idea what the Arabic-looking script says, and I’ve asked people I know who read Arabic, and they couldn’t read it either. I picked up the measuring glasses piecemeal – I was probably about fourteen or so when I got the first one, and wouldn’t have paid more than a few pennies. I used to help out in an antiques shop at that age, it was just down the road from my school and I would go to shows and fairs and markets with the owners at weekends. They were getting on a bit, and I would carry their boxes in and out for them. I would also get a ‘trade’ pass, so I’d get a dealer’s discount on any stuff I bought for myself.

In the large glass are some dentist’s tools. I got these when I was studying sculpture, and used them for carving fine detail in plaster and soapstone. The scalpels date from the same time, and were used to cut cardboard mounts for paintings and prints. The scales came from a charity shop about twenty years ago, again for a few pennies. The skull was given away with a children’s magazine. It has eyes, but they look a bit creepy, so I keep them in the cranium. The anatomical figure was picked up from somewhere, but goodness knows when or where. It’s certainly quite old, possibly 40s or 50s.

There are two printed pieces at the back. One is an old advertisement for Birley’s Phosphorus. Here is a scan of it.

 It was in one of the copies of my Cassell’s Popular Educator, so dates from around 1905. These quack medicines were very popular in the days before the foundation of the Nation Health Service (1948), when people would treat themselves rather than pay a doctor’s fee. A report on quack medicine in the British Medical Journal dated Oct. 24th 1908 states that the “…price is ls. 1½ d. per bottle, containing nearly 3 fluid ounces.” After a chemical analysis of the ingredients, the article concludes that no ‘free phosphorus’ could be found and the “…Estimated cost of ingredients for 3 fluid ounces, 4d”. That’s quite a mark up.

The other is a reprint of another advertisement, for The Carbolic Smoke Ball. This supposedly efficacious remedy claims to ‘positively cure’ all manner of ills, and carries endorsements from the great and the good of the day. The Carbolic Smoke Ball, or rather another advertisement for it, was the cause of a famous legal challenge. In 1890 and 1891 an influenza epidemic killed over a million people, and, from November 1891, the company began a series of advertisements in the Pall Mall Gazette and other newspapers, offering £100 reward to anyone who contracted influenza, or related complaint, after using the smoke ball three times a day for two weeks. A Mrs Louisa Elizabeth Carlill bought one of the balls, used it as instructed, but nonetheless began to suffer from influenza on Jan. 17th 1891. Her husband, a solicitor, sent two letters to the company, claiming the reward. These letters were ignored, but they sent an anonymous reply to a third, claiming that the advertisement was not a serious contract. The case went to court, the company lost at the Queen’s Bench and immediately appealed. The Court of Appeal, heard by three judges, also found against the company. They dismissed the argument that the advert was ‘mere puff’ and judged that it satisfied the conditions of a legally binding contract. Mr Roe, who owned the company, started a new company with limited liability and began advertising again, this time offering £200 reward (but with small print attached), claiming that thousands had used the product and, as only three claims for the reward had been made, this was conclusive proof of the effectiveness of the remedy.

Mrs Carlill lived on to 1942. Her doctor put her death down to old age (she was 96), but noted one other cause. Ironically, that was influenza.

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