By Emily Q Welch

Medicine is part of daily American life, whether in the form of prescription antibiotics or over the counter pain killers. Our constant consumption of medicine means that not only do medical practitioners go through strenuous education and training, the drugs they prescribe are

Microbe Killer Jug

Microbe Killer No. 2 Jug, 1886-1913, W.M. Radam, stoneware with wooden cork, H: 15 x W: 7 x D: 8 in. New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, New York, N0033.1975, Photographed by Emily Q Welch

similarly sent through rigorous testing before reaching the general public. Development of new drugs can take up to ten years, consisting of pre-clinical, non-human testing, three stages of clinical testing on people and final approval by the FDA[1]. However, the medical field as we know it today was developed after years of trial and error and was once plagued with quack-doctors and their falsified remedies for all ailments. A prime example is encapsulated by this stoneware jug, labeled “WM RADAM’S MICROBE KILLER NO. 2”.

W.M. Radam was a Prussian immigrant gardener who first began his medical “practice” after several trained doctors failed to cure him of his own varied ailments in the late 1800’s. In his search for a cure, he stumbled upon the concept of “microbes,”, which he compared to pests in a garden. He developed his “microbe killer” and sold it to the masses, after recieving his September 28th, 1886 patent on the microbe killer, opening seventeen production facilities across the nation, proclaiming his remedy could cure all illnesses simply by imbibing it until the body’s tissues were soaked in it and the microbes were rid of the body [2]. However, in 1913, a lawsuit was brought against Radam as chemists claimed his remedy a complete hoax, lacking any curative properties at all [3]. Daniel R. Barnett says in his article on the subject, “The 1886 patent revealed that Radam manufactured Microbe Killer by mixing powdered sulfur, sodium nitrate, manganese oxide, sandalwood, and potassium chloride and burning the mixture in an oven; the vapors mixed with vapor from water located in a closed tank in which the oven sat. After the treated water was allowed to condense and then filtered to remove any sediment, a tiny amount of wine was added to give the Microbe Killer a light pink tint”[2]. The federal lawsuit that followed won national attention as Minneapolis court systems assessed the validity of the claims [4]. Yet, it is no surprise that On November 28th, 1913 the court system confirmed this faux-remedy to be a hoax and ordered the “microbe killer” to be confiscated destroyed [3].

The thought of a similar medicinal hoax making it to the American marketplace today seems unlikely. However, herbal remedies and supplements that do not undergo such rigorous testing are still available to the public today. How far have our modern pharmacological practices only created a better distinction between bio-medicine and possible herbal-based fallacies? The story of the microbe killer still resonates with Americans today as medicine has only become further ingrained into the fabric of our culture. It is not out of place to ask, how long until the next “microbe killer” becomes incorporated into our medicine cabinets on the word of the next W.M. Radam?

[1]”Clinical Trials,” PhRMA, accessed November 21, 2015, http://www.phrma.org/innovation/clinical-trials

[2] Daniel R. Barnett. “William Radam and the Microbe Killer: An Account of Classic Medical Quackery from the Heart of Texas.” The North Texas Skeptic (2004). Accessed November 18, 2015. http://www.ntskeptics.org/2004/2004january/january2004.htm.

[3] B.T. Galloway. “Misbranding of Radam’s Microbe Killer.” U.S. Department of Agriculture Bureau of Chemistry Service and Regulatory Announcements 235-41 (1914) 235-241.

[4]“Government Wins in Microbe Killer Case.” The Journal of the National Association of Retail Druggists 150 (1914): 150.

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