In doing some research (for my “Historical Sketches” column in my hometown newspaper) I unexpectedly came across a mid-1920s photo showing small tin signs for “Dr. Porter’s Healing Oil” affixed to the front of a store warehouse. I wondered: just who was Dr. Porter, and what was the story behind his medicinal product?
Many patent medicines of the nineteenth and early twentieth century were medicinal oils. They bore names like Moone’s Emerald Oil, St. Jacob’s Oil, Renne’s Magic Oil, Hamlin’s Wizard Oil Liniment, Dr. Thomas’ Eclectic Oil, Christy’s Magnetic Oil, etc. (just to mention a few from my collection). They were basically either liniments (for treating sore muscles, rheumatism, or the like) or antiseptics (for burns, cuts, etc.)—or both. (For example, Dr. W.H. Alexander’s Healing Oil was advertised for conditions from head to toe—from dandruff to cuts and sprains to sore feet and corns.)
Dr. Porter’s Antiseptic Oil, according to the bottle’s label was “Not a Liniment” but instead “an Antiseptic Surgical Dressing.” It was “Applicable for Cuts, Burns, Bruises, Itch, Corns, Bunions, Bites and Stings of Insects, Sunburn, Frost Bite, Chapped Hands and Lips, etc., Wounds and Sores of the Mucous Membrane or Skin.” Moreover, since it was for external use, it was billed, “For Man and Beast.” The product was manufactured by Paris Medicine Co. of St. Louis, Missouri, and therein lies a tale.
Dr. Felix F. Porter (1838¬–1910) hailed from Paris, Henry County, Tennessee. After graduating from the Medical Department of the University of Pennsylvania in 1859, he served as an Assistant Surgeon in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. (Subsequently, he was elected to the Tennessee legislature but was expelled due to “disloyalty.”) Curiously, an advertisement in the Montreal Gazette of March 9, 1907, referred to him as “an Old Railroad Surgeon.” The ad claimed he had “spent several years of study and experiment in getting up the preparation known as Dr. Porter’s Antiseptic Healing Oil.”
Indeed, the product did not appear until 1894, when it was marketed by the Paris Medicine Company form by druggist E.W. Grove. (Dr. Porter once had his office in Grove’s Paris drug store building, but Grove moved his patent medicine business to St. Louis in 1889.)
Following implementation of the Federal Food and Drugs Act of 1907, various Paris Medicine Co. products were challenged, tested, and their claims discredited. In 1915 Dr. Porter’s Healing Oil was reported by federal chemists to be “essentially a solution of camphor and carbolic acid in cotton-seed oil,” and many of its curative claims were characterized as knowingly false and fraudulent, perhaps especially the company’s claim that “the use of Dr. Porter’s Antiseptic Healing Oil is a wise precaution against serious infectious diseases, such as Whooping Cough, Diphtheria and Tuberculosis.” The court fined the company $25 and costs, a slap on the wrist that apparently had little effect, as the product continued to be sold for years to come.
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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: A photo showing Porter signs is in W. Lynn Nickell’s Riding the Blue Goose, West Liberty, Ky.: Privately printed, 1993, p. 81. I am grateful to the Director of CFI Libraries, Timothy Binga for turning up the following: Nostrums and Quackery (in three volumes), Chicago: Press of American Medical Association, 1921, v. 2, 517, 614; and various online sources, including “Edwin Wiley Grove Timeline” (www.ewgrove.com/groveleg/grotime.htm) and “Dr. Felix F. Porter” (archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/CONFEDERATE-TIMES/2000-10/0971478299).