Scott’s Emulsion of Cod Liver Oil, New York City, New York

Fish oil capsules and omega-3 supplements that are common today can trace their origins to the infamous cod liver oil of yesteryear, often given to children by well intentioned adults to combat the debilitating diseases caused by vitamin D deficiency, including rickets (a disease marked by soft and deformed bones, typically resulting in bowed legs). According to the Science History Institute, “Even the most steadfast proponents of cod-liver oil admitted that the highly disagreeable taste and smell presented a significant hurdle to its use. In 1873, Alfred B. Scott came to New York City and, along with partner Samuel W. Bowne, began experimenting to produce a less nauseating preparation of cod-liver oil. Three years later they established the firm of Scott and Bowne, and began marketing their product as Scott’s Emulsion.

Bottle embossed “SCOTT’S EMULSION”

Bottle embossed “WITH LIME AND SODA”

Bottle embossed: “COD LIVER OIL”

According to the Smithsonian magazine, “Vitamin D, which is made in the body when the skin is exposed to sunlight, is vital to human health. It helps the gastrointestinal tract absorb calcium and phosphorous, which in turn ensures the normal mineralization of bones. When children don’t get enough vitamin D, they wind up with rickets. Their bones become soft and weak, leading to stunted growth and deformities like bowed legs.” While rickets is most often associated with Industrial cities in the 19th and early 20th centuries, new archaeological research shows it to have been a public health problem as early as the Roman empire.

“Roman physician Soranus was one of the first to remark upon “bony deformities” in infants in the first and second century. To find out just how prevalent the disease was, researchers from Historic England and McMaster University in Canada studied 2,787 skeletons from across the Roman Empire, dating from the first to sixth centuries A.D.  The researchers found evidence of rickets in more than one in 20 ancient children. Overall, the rate of rickets in children was 5.7 percent and residual rickets was seen in the remains of 3.2 percent of adults.”

Dr Kumaravel Rajakumar writes in the journal Pediatrics about the medical evolution rickets, how its links to vitamin D were discovered, and how cod liver oil because its first effective cure.

“Rickets, although rare, is  still  diagnosed  in  the  United States.  Individuals with dark skin  pigmentation  who  reside  in  northern  latitudes or those with poor sun exposure are most at risk. Breast  milk  is  a poor source  of  vitamin  D and dark-skinned  infants  are  at risk  for  rickets  if  they  are  exclusively  breastfed  beyond 6 months without vitamin D supplementation.

“Daniel Whistler, an English physician, is credited with the earliest description of rickets, when in 1645, he published a monograph titled “Inaugural medical disputation on the disease of English children which is popularly termed the rickets”. Then in  1650,  Francis  Glisson,  a  Cambridge  physician, published  “De Rachitide.” Glisson’s observation of rickets is based on clinical  and  postmortem  experience.  Glisson’s  writing  reflects  the  transitional  phase  in  medical  thinking as he describes the clinical features of rickets in a scientific tone, but lapses into medieval mysticism  while  discussing  the  etiology  of  rickets. Glisson ascribed the etiology of rickets to “cold distemper,  that  is  moist  and  consisting  of  penury  or paucity  of  and  stupefaction  of  sprits.”  Glisson’s suggested treatments for rickets included: cautery, incisions to draw out bad humors, blistering, and ligature of soft wool around the limb to retard the return of blood. For correction of bony deformities, Glisson proposed splinting and artificial suspension of the affected infant.

“There were no new advances in the study of rickets for nearly 2 centuries after the Glissonian era. At the  turn  of  the  20th  century,  rickets  was  rampant among the underprivileged infants residing in industrialized  cities  of  North  in  the  United  States  and several  polluted  cities  in  Europe.  In  1909,  among infants  18  months  or  less  who  had  died,  Schmorl found  histopathological  evidence  of  rickets  in  96% (214  of  221)  at  autopsy,  highlighting  the  pervasive nature of rickets during that era. Despite its common  occurrence,  the  exact  cause  remained  elusive.  Deficient  diet,  faulty  environment (poor  hygiene,  lack  of  fresh  air  and  sunshine),  and lack  of  exercise  were  all  implicated  in  its  etiology.”

As Dr. Rajakumar explains, it was animal studies that showed the connection between deficiencies of diet and rickets, and how supplementing diets could cure and prevent rickets. Studies of lions, dogs and rats clearly established the role of diet in the cause of rickets, and later, how newly discovered vitamins could be supplemented to prevent rickets.

“Elmer McCollum, a nutritional biochemist  at  Wisconsin  College  of  Agriculture,  perfected the art of “biological method of analysis” of  nutritive  value  of  foods  using  rats  as  an animal model. Rats fed restricted diets of single cereal grains or mixtures of several grains ceased to grow, reflecting the nutritional  inadequacy  of  the  corresponding  diets.  The physiologic  response  of  such  animals  to  single  and multiple   purified   nutritional   supplements   helped clarify  their  nutritional  requirements.  Eventually  it was  the  perfection  of  this  technique  of “biological analysis of foods,” which helped McCollum discover vitamin D.”

“Among people living in coastal areas, folklore has had a long-standing appreciation of the medical benefit  of  cod-liver  oil. The  earliest  recorded  medical use of cod-liver oil dates to 1789, and is credited to Dr Darbey of Manchester Infirmary, where he used it for treating rheumatism. The recognition of cod-liver oil as  a  remedy  against  rickets  was  noted  in 1824 in the German medical literature. In 1861, Trousseau of France ventured to state that rickets was caused by lack of sun exposure and a faulty diet, and cod-liver oil could effectively cure it. In 1890, Theobald Palm studied the relationship between incidence of rickets and its geographical distribution, and concluded that rickets was caused by lack of exposure to sunlight and he recommended “systematic use of sun-baths as  a  preventive  and  therapeutic  measure  in  rickets.”

“The fact that both sunlight exposure and ingestion of  cod-liver  oil  could  cure  or  prevent  rickets  was perplexing. Clinical studies performed by Dr Harriette Chick in Vienna in 1919, were able to confirm the preventive and therapeutic value of cod-liver  oil  and  sunlight  against  rickets  in  young  infants. The  seasonal  variation  in  the  incidence  of rickets, the role of skin pigmentation in exacerbation of rickets during the winter months, the role of diet and  appreciation  of  the  fact  that  breast  milk was not an adequate source of vitamin D were understood. The bridging of the knowledge that photosynthesized vitamin D and vitamin D in cod-liver oil  were  similar  was  responsible  for  the  eventual conquest of rickets. By the 1930s, the use of cod-liver oil in the treatment and prevention of rickets became common place. The eventual public health prevention initiative of fortification of milk with vitamin D led to eradication of rickets in the United States.”

Diane Wendt, Associate Curator of Medicine and Science at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, writes about cod liver oil for the Science History Institute:

“Northern European fishing communities used cod-liver oil for generations to restore health and alleviate aches and pains before the doctors and chemists of 19th-century Europe began to take an interest. Its manufacture was simple: cut out the fish livers (with gallbladders), throw them into barrels, and let them decompose. “In those days,” wrote pharmacist F. Peckel Möller in his 1895 monograph Cod Liver Oil and Chemistry, “cod-liver oil was not a desirable article of consumption; indeed, to put the matter plainly, it was an abomination, and no one could have taken it willingly, even once, not to speak of day after day and month after month. Nevertheless many people did take it, and the only reasonable explanation is that the oil must have given strikingly favorable results.”

“Edinburgh physician John Hughes Bennett played a part in introducing cod-liver oil to the English-speaking medical community. In 1841 he published his Treatise on the Oleum Jecoris Aselli, or Cod Liver Oil, after spending some years in Germany observing its use for the treatment of rickets, rheumatism, gout, and scrofula (a form of tuberculosis). Bennett’s publication spawned further research, resulting in the growth of a large cod-liver-oil industry in New England by mid-century.

“Ludovicus Josephus de Jongh of the Netherlands produced the first extensive chemical analysis of cod liver in 1843. In 1846 de Jongh traveled to Norway to procure the purest oil available. By the 1850s “Dr. de Jongh’s Light Brown Cod Liver Oil” was marketed throughout Europe and exported to the United States. Advertising emphasized de Jongh’s credentials as a physician and chemist and included testimonials from other men of science and medicine.”

Among a sea of false claims, narcotic snake oils and adulterated nostrums for sale in the 19th century, cod liver oil was a simple medicine that could prevent disease if taken regularly, especially for the very young.  And yet, it was the foul taste of cod liver oil was the primary barrier to the wide use of this rare efficacious 19th century patent medicine. The medicine needed a champion who could help it overcome this fatal flaw and bring it to the masses.  Motivated by financial opportunity if not medical altruism, Alfred B. Scott, with partner Samuel W. Bowne, enter the scene.  According to Wendt:

“In 1873 Alfred B. Scott came to New York City and, along with partner Samuel W. Bowne, began experimenting to produce a less nauseating preparation of cod-liver oil. Three years later they established the firm of Scott and Bowne, and began marketing their product as Scott’s Emulsion. Though not a doctor or pharmacist by training, Scott had the eye for opportunity that was necessary for achievement in business. Advertising, the two men believed, would propel their product to success. And so it did: by the 1890s Scott and Bowne had factories in Canada, England, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and France, and advertised their emulsion throughout the Americas, Europe, and Asia.

“Scott procured his oil for Scott’s Emulsion directly from the Lofoten Islands, a long chain located above the Arctic Circle and the world center of cod fishery. The man with the fish on his back first appeared on Scott’s Emulsion around 1884 and became Scott and Bowne’s trademark in 1890. As Scott told it, he saw this fisherman with his record-breaking catch while on business in Norway. A photographer was quickly found to record the scene; later the photo was faithfully reproduced and registered as the company’s trademark. Trade cards and booklets featured the fisherman and his catch along with the words, “Scene taken from life on the coast of Norway” and “This Codfish, weighing 156 pounds, was caught off the coast of Norway.” The realistic image, a direct reference to the natural source of the medicine, served as a reassurance of quality in a marketplace of adulterated goods. Man and fish also evoked the romance and myth of the sea and the fisherman, who procures the bounty of the sea.

“By 1900 “the man with the fish” was famous. His image was engraved and embossed on countless boxes and bottles of a cod-liver-oil preparation; printed in full color on advertising trade cards, booklets, and posters distributed around the globe; and in one instance painted several stories high on the side of a building in lower Manhattan.

“De Jongh believed the problem of palatability could be surmounted with a little perseverance or “a little preserve for children, some fruit, a biscuit, or a drop of Bordeaux or Sherry wine.” Despite such assurances, much discussion and advice revolved around overcoming the nauseating taste and smell. Often the oil was mixed into coffee, milk, or brandy; some recommended taking the oil with smoked herring, tomato ketchup, or in the froth of malted beverages. Those with an “insurmountable aversion to the taste” could take the oil by enema.

“Scott and Bowne carefully distinguished their tastier product from other “secret” remedies, openly publishing the formula in early advertising: “50 per cent. of Pure Cod Liver Oil, 6 grs. of the Hypophosphites of Lime, and 3 grs. of the Hypophosphites of Soda to a fluid ounce. Emulsified with mucilage and Glycerine.” The mucilage used was probably gum acacia. The glycerine added sweetness and was also thought to have tonic and healing properties. The hypophosphites of lime (calcium) and soda (sodium) were considered helpful in the treatment of consumption.

“Scott and Bowne’s first trademark, registered in 1879, included the initials P.P.P. and three words—“Perfect, Permanent, Palatable.” The mark reflected their perfect formula; a permanent emulsion, that is, one that would not separate; and most important, a palatable one. One advertisement proclaimed, “You do not get the taste at all; because the little drops of oil are covered over in glycerine, just as pills are covered in sugar or gelatine.” “Palatable as milk” became a key tagline in Scott’s advertising.

“With the discovery of vitamins the medical world transformed cod-liver oil to an indispensable part of every child’s diet. Health professionals urged mothers to dose their children daily and provided much advice on how to get babies to swallow the nasty stuff. “Guile Baby into Regarding Cod Liver Oil as a Treat” headlined one newspaper health column, which continued, “It remains for the mother to sternly squelch any disposition to be ‘sniffy’ about cod liver oil. She must assume that bright, alert expression which is so natural to her when she offers the baby something simply marvelous.” Pamphlets on infant care issued by the U.S. Children’s Bureau demonstrated the proper method of administering the oil: a “forced feeding” that included squeezing the baby’s cheeks together to prevent it from spitting out the oil.

““When babies don’t swallow their daily dose of cod liver oil, their mothers are usually to blame … The stuff doesn’t taste like candy, so infants sometimes rebel. The mother pictured is using the proper technique and firmness in feeding her baby, however – and the child is taking his medicine without a whimper!””

“Neither Scott nor Bowne lived to see the advent of the age of vitamins, which became the new “wonder drugs” and a boon to the marketers of cod-liver oil. The two died in 1908 and 1910, respectively, as wealthy men. Their emulsion survived them; advertisements in the 1920s touted the health-promoting properties of the vitamins—proof that modern science had vindicated an old remedy.

“As scientists unraveled the role of vitamin D in cod-liver oil, others worked on a way to supply the vitamin without the cod’s liver. Scientists identified ergosterol, a substance extracted from the fungus ergot, as the molecular precursor to vitamin D. The compound was added in minute amounts to fortify other products with vitamin D.

“Cod (and other fish) liver oil continued to be the preferred daily supplement, and Scott’s Emulsion remained on the market as a popular and more palatable alternative to pure oil. Advertising copy in the 1940s and 1950s emphasized Scott’s “natural A&D vitamins and energy-building natural oil factors.” However, the large-scale production of synthetic vitamins and vitamin fortification of other foods gradually undermined our dependence on traditional “natural” sources.

“But in the 1970s Danish doctor Jorn Dyerburg connected diets based on cold-water oily fish to a low incidence of coronary disease among the Greenland Inuit. His work led to further studies on the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids and so paved the way for the innumerable fish-oil supplements seen on the market today. The new research, still ongoing, strongly suggests that there is more to the therapeutic value of cod-liver oil than its vitamins.

“Scott’s Emulsion weathered the changes in medical knowledge, therapeutic practice, and cultural preference. Still produced today in much the same formula, the emulsion remains rich in vitamins A and D, calcium, phosphorus, and now omega-3 fatty acids. Although the emulsion is no longer widely used in the United States where the vitamin pill mostly supplanted it, it remains popular in Asia and Central and South America, markets pioneered by Alfred Scott in the late 19th century. The man with the fish on his back still appears on every package, a testament to a traditional remedy that continues to inform and adapt in an era of scientific medicine.”

The indications or uses for this product as provided on its packaging:
Scott’s Emulsion, Active Ingredient Cod Liver Oil, four times easier to digest than plain Cod Liver Oil. Guarantee: We guarantee that Scott’s Emulsion when assayed biologically contained sufficient Vitamin A and Vitamin D units to meet the daily dosage requirements of the Council of Pharmacy and Chemistry of the American Medical Association and furnishes full minimum daily requirements for these vitamins if taken as recommended below.
Children: Scott’s Emulsion should be given to children to help build resistance to rickets and to aid in growth of bone structure and development of teeth.
Adults: In cases where there is a lack of Vitamin A, Scott’s Emulsion presents a palatable way in which to help overcome this deficiency, and help build resistance to colds.
As a Year Around Tonic: Scott’s Emulsion is an excellent protection against deficiencies in Vitamin A and D which may occur at any season of the year.
Dosage: Adults and Children: 1 tablespoonful two or three times daily after meals.

Scott’s Emulsion ad, date unknown

Scott’s Emulsion Ad 1889. “Oh! Doctor, must my darling die? “There’s very little hope, but try Scott’s emulsion.”

1890 Scott’s Emulsion Ad

1890 Scott’s Emulsion Ad

Scott’s Emulsion 1893 Ad

1897 Scott’s Emulsion Ad

Scott’s Emulsion ad, date unknown

1905 Scott’s Emulsion Ad

1916 Ad Scott’s Emulsion

Scott’s Emulsion Advertisement, 1916

Scott’s Emulsion ad, date unknown

1930 Scott’s Emulsion Ad. See the Man with the Fish on his back at the bottom?

About Jessica

I am the supervisor of the analysis of the archaeological collection recovered from the Old Main excavation.
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