Father John’s Medicine

April 23, 2014

Father John’s Medicine is the name of a cough remedy with a long history and accompanying legend.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Irish priests John O’Brien and his older brother Timothy immigrated to the United States and settled in Lowell, Massachusetts (in 1848 and 1851 respectively). This was a time of anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiment, as well as divisiveness within the Irish community itself. The O’Brien brothers became a positive influence and were much respected. Then in 1855 Timothy died of pneumonia, and John also became ill. According to tradition, he struggled to the Merrimack Street drug store of George H. Carlton and Charles Hovey, seeking some remedy.

The druggists gave him a tonic that was a non-alcoholic mixture containing cod-liver oil (a source of vitamins A and D) and having a licorice flavor. Indeed, it actually contained licorice root, regarded by herbalists as “a powerful anti-inflammatory” for self-treating coughs and bronchitis. “It is among the most used herbs in European medicine and has been taken medicinally for several thousand years” (Chevallier 1996, 99). Father John’s Medicine also contained gum Arabic, glycerin, sugar, and “flavoring oils” (“True Story” 1995).

The priest regarded the remedy as so effective that he began to recommend it to his friends and parishioners. If they asked for “Father John’s Medicine” it was—by agreement with Carlton and Hovey—given to them for free, whereas the priest otherwise received a “small stipend” for the use of his name and image—an oval portrait of the white-collared cleric appearing in advertisements and on bottle labels and boxes (“True Story” 1995).

Within the next half century, although O’Brien himself died in 1879, the medicine spread across the United States, Canada, and other countries—from a large factory, still standing on Market Street. (There were three sizes of bottles [Fike 2006, 146], the dark amber one pictured here being large—about 91/4” 3 3” 3 113/16”—and having a large mouth. Blown in a two-piece mold, it predates the early 1900s use of the Owens automatic bottle machine [Kendrick 1978, 73–74].)

Unfortunately, like other nostrums and cures of the era, Father John’s Medicine was claimed effective for “consumption, grip [grippe: influenza], croup, whooping cough, and other diseases of the throat.” Such outlandish claims were prohibited, however, after passage of the 1906 Food and Drug Act, which also required the listing of a product’s ingredients. Father John’s was now claimed only to be “A Nutritive Tonic and a Wholesome Medicine,” for treating “coughs due to colds” and “deficiencies in vitamins A and D” (“True Story” 1995).

Today, it is still marketed (distributed by Oakhurst Co., Levittown, NY), and still consists of the original ingredients, although it has undergone a transformation: it now contains a single “active ingredient,” dextromethorphan, a cough suppressant. It still bears the familiar portrait of the Irish priest (again see photo), and an old-fashioned-looking label, though the amber bottle is now made of plastic.


Chevallier, Andrew. 1996. The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants. New York: DK Publishing.

Fike, Richard E. 2006. The Bottle Book: A Comprehensive Guide to Historic, Embossed Medicine Bottles. Caldwell, NJ: The Blackburn Press.

Kendrick, Grace. 1978. The Antique Bottle Collector. New York: Harvest/HBJ.

The True Story of Father John’s Medicine. 1995. Online at https://library.uml.edu/clh/Fath/Fath.Html; accessed March 26, 2014.