Dr. Taft’s “Asthmalene”
January 27, 2015
A product with the unique name “Asthmalene” was sold as an asthma “cure” by the Taft Brothers, physicians, who joined forces in 1868 and settled in Rochester, New York, where they formed a medicine company, Dr. Taft Bros.
They were Albert S. (1824–1900), who studied medicine with a Dr. Daniel Durgan, and Gilbert T. (1826–1885), likewise a physician, sons of Lewis and Sarah (Brown) Taft of Windon (Windham?), Vermont. Evidence indicates that in 1866 Gilbert was in Seneca Falls (southeast of Rochester) where he sold Rosenberger’s German Magnetic Oil and Balm of Gilead. The brothers appear to have purchased the rights to the Rosenberger products and renamed them, after they began their Rochester company. A younger brother, Henry, was later associated with the enterprise, but he died at age 57 in 1890, five years after Gilbert. When Albert too passed, the firm—headed by Gilbert’s son William B. Taft—moved to New York City. (Bottles like that shown in the accompanying picture bearing “Rochester, N.Y.,” are the earliest, dating in some form from perhaps as early as 1868 to about 1885.) (Dr. Taft 2012).
The Tafts not only sold Asthmalene, their principal product, but also such alleged remedies as Sure Relief and Balm of Gilead. By the 1890s the company had an office in Canada and another in New Zealand. In 1905 the trademark was re-registered as the Taft’s Asthmalene Company of New York City. While still owned by the younger Taft (or at one point by a Charles S. Taft, also of New York [Fike 2006]), the name of B.S. McKean began to appear on Asthmalene’s label and box as “Sole Agent.” In time the product was manufactured by the B.S. McKean Company of Mamaroneck New York, which renewed its trademark in 1946 although it eventually became “expired.”
B[ernard] S[lagle] McKean (1863–1914), had once himself founded a mineral water concern. He was an attorney, a member of the local Republican club, and would-be tax adviser. In 1904 he was drawn into the case of his brother-in-law, Francis “Caesar” Young—notorious as a bookie and gambler—who was fatally shot in a cab while heading to meet his wife for a boat trip to Europe. Young was accompanied in the cab by his mistress who was charged with his murder, but—after two trials with hung juries—she was released. Although evidence showed she had brought the pistol, which was found in his pocket (!), she maintained he committed suicide, being distraught at the prospect of their separation.
Asthmalene ads promised not only “instant relief” but a “permanent cure” of asthma “that Terrible Disease,” as well as bronchitis and hay fever. (The ads imply that “permanent cure” meant taking the product for relief whenever symptoms occurred.) As was typical of patent medicines, Asthmalene relied upon testimonials to convince people to try it. One enthusiastic endorser was the Reverend Doctor Morris Wechsler, rabbi of Congregation Bnai Israel in New York City. Asthmalene ads appeared in a variety of magazines, including The Menorah (magazine of the Jewish Chautauqua Society), The Rosary (magazine of the Catholic Dominican Order), and many others including the International Railway Journal, and Yale University’s literary magazine (Dr. Taft 20912).
Asthmalene’s formula was something of a mystery. The aforementioned rabbi attested that it contained neither opium nor morphine, chloroform or ether. He said noting as to possible alcohol content. When in 1913 Asthmalene was brought to the attention of the Journal of the American Medical Association, which was allied with the fledgling FDA to combat quackery, the response was that the product appeared to meet the 1907 standards: the product label stated its alcohol content (ten percent) and no longer claimed to be a sure “cure.” Therefore, the reformers could not bar sale of the product—even though it might have been ineffective (Dr. Taft 2012).
Dr. Taft Brothers Medicine Company. 2012. Online at 1898revenues.blogspot.com/2012/11/on-beyond-holcombe-dr-taft-brothers.html; accessed December 22, 2014.
Fike, Richard E. 2006. The Bottle Book: A Comprehensive Guide to Historic, Embossed Medicine Bottles. Caldwell, NJ: The Blackburn Press, p. 182.