“Dr.” McLean’s Nostrums

February 8, 2013

While my wife Diana and I visited an aunt in Kentucky during the holidays, from the winter solstice to New Year’s, I paid a visit to Georgetown, where I saw—for the first time in 17 years—my old friend Jerome Redfearn, proprietor of Central Kentucky Antique Mall. As we talked and I browsed, looking for items for my Skeptiseum collection, something caught my eye—a quack medicine item of more than a century ago (pictured here). The price proved to be perfect: Jerome presented it to me as a gift!

It is a small example of “paper ephemera” (as collector’s say), an advertising giveaway in the form of an “Almanac and Diary” promoting Dr. J.H. McLean’s Medicine Company of St. Louis, Missouri. Measuring about 31/2’’ x 6’’, it has space for daily notations, interleaved with a “Storm Calendar, and Weather Forecasts by Rev. Irl R. Hicks the ‘Storm Prophet,’” plus numerous ads for Dr. McLean’s multitudinous products.

These include his Liver & Kidney Balm (which “cures Pains in the Back and Diseases of the Urinary Organs”), Tar Wine Lung Balm, (“for Coughs, Colds, Sore Throat, Lung Complaints”), Volcanic Oil Liniment (“cures Pains, Bruises, Sprains, Rheumatism”), Strengthening Cordial & Blood Purifier (“for Weakness, Fickle Appetite, Dyspepsia”), and Sarsaparilla (“for Blood Diseases, Scrofula, Eruptive and Cutaneous Disorders”), among others, including his Strengthening Eye Salve (“for Weak Sight, Sore Eyes, etc.”) and Wonderful Healing Plaster (“for the relief of Pain, Weak Back, Chest Pains, Heart Troubles, etc.”).

“Doctor” James Henry McLean was born in Nova Scotia, but as a teenager he worked for a pharmacist in Philadelphia. His claim to being a doctor apparently rests on his having taken a single medical course at the University of Philadelphia. In 1849 he arrived in St. Louis, where (with partner Addison G. Bragg) he was himself working as a druggist by 1851. McLean’s “Volcanic Oil Liniment” appeared by 1854–55. In 1867 McLean moved to 314 Chestnut Street, and by 1873 he was first referenced as an actual manufacturer of drugs. In 1883 he moved again, to the corner of Broadway and Biddle Street (where he remained when our little booklet was printed in late 1891).

Meanwhile, McLean entered Congress to fill an unexpired term, but was subsequently defeated in his campaign for a full term. Near the end of 1879, he decided to use his abilities—not only to alleviate pain and disease, but to eliminate war, allying himself with an inventor and spiritualist named Myron Coloney. The pair began to obtain patents for machine guns and other weapons, so fearsome, they argued, that no countries would use them lest they be turned on themselves! In 1880 they published their illustrated treatise, Dr. J.H. McLean’s Peace Makers, a study in grandiosity and self-promotion.

As a “doctor,” McLean was all too typical of the era, a peddler of doubtful products in the medicine-show era of American quackery—prior to the establishment of the Federal Food and Drugs Act of 1906. Given today’s homeopathic and other “cures,” we can question whether, after more than a century, over-the-counter nostrums have progressed as far as we should expect.

(Note: For more on McLean, see Richard E. Fike’s The Bottle Book: A Comprehensive Guide to Historic, Embossed Medicine Bottles, Caldwell, NJ: The Blackburn Press, 2006, pp. 20, 172, 194, 204, 218; see also “James Henry McLean,” online at www.rdhinstl.com/mm/rs170.htm; accessed January 18, 2013.)