“Compound Oxygen”: Quackery of Yore

September 4, 2013

When I purchased the blue bottle pictured here, I suspected it was a relatively rare item with an unusual story. I was right on both counts.

The bottle. I began by examining the bottle, which was made of cobalt glass, mouth-blown in a two-piece mold and finished by adding what is known in bottlespeak as “an applied lip.” The embossed lettering (produced by the mold) reads, ‘DRS. / STARKEY & PALEN / COMPOUND / OXYGEN/INHALING FLUID / PHILA, PA.” (We shall return to this presently.) The inside neck of the bottle has the frosted appearance of ground glass, characteristic of bottles sealed with a matching glass stopper instead of a cork. The bottle’s opposite side has a blank panel. That would have been the actual front of the bottle and would have borne a paper label. (That the label is gone is only one of several indications that it was probably a “dug” bottle—i.e., one recovered from an old dump site.)

Embossments on the bottom, including a “WT & Co.” and a patent date (“Jan. 5, 1892”) identifies a well-known bottle manufacturer—Whitall Tatum & Co.—and manufacture in the 1892–1901 period. (See www.sha.org/bottle/pdffiles/WTandCo_Blockhart.pdf.) The U.S. patent applies not to the “patent medicine,” in this case, but to a design patent for the bottle itself. (The bottle’s relative scarcity is indicated by its absence from such compendiums as Richard E. Fike’s The Bottle Book: A Comprehensive Guide to Historic, Embossed Medicine Bottles, 1987, 2006.)

The contents. Compound Oxygen Inhaling Fluid was the product of two non-practicing physicians. George R. Starkey (1823–1896) gave up his teaching position at a homeopathic medical school due to poor health (!), while Gilbert E. Palen (1832–1901), after obtaining his medical degree, worked instead as a “chemist” (initially for a tannery). The pair teamed up to peddle their concoction. Their ads insisted it was “Not a Drug” and that it was effective “For Consumption, Asthma, Bronchitis, Dyspepsia, Catarrh, Hay Fever, Headache, Debility, Rheumatism, Neuralgia and all chronic and nervous disorders” (http://www.antiquemedicines.com/AirMedicines/Starkey1890.JPG; accessed Aug. 19, 2013).

In fact, Compound Oxygen was just another quack respiratory treatment common in the late nineteenth century. In their book The Compound Oxygen Treatment (rev. ed. 1881, available in facsimile), Starkey and Palen claimed that “Compound Oxygen acts upon the human organism ‘magnetically’ to cause an increase of vital force in the body.” However, an article in The Medical World (1886, p. 97), called for “The exercise of a grain of chemical common sense” which would expose the claims as “bosh” and “pretentious nonsense.” (See “Oxygen Therapy: The First 150 Years,” online at http://www.lakesidepress.com/pulmonary/papers/ox-hist2.html; accessed Aug. 19, 2013). Undaunted, the quacks continued to decry the “frauds and imitations” of others who sold similar products.

The doctors’ book is replete with testimonials from satisfied customers. But Compound Oxygen was, as its sellers admitted in their book (1881, p. 4), “a combination of oxygen and nitrogen.” Indeed, according to one authority, the resulting compound was nitrous oxide (N2O), what is popularly called “laughing gas” (mixed with potassium chlorate or ferric carbonate for color). (Again see “Oxygen Therapy,” previously cited.)

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