In nineteenth century America, tuberculosis accounted for nearly one out of every ten deaths. Known most commonly as “consumption,” this disease was dreaded across society because it affected all age groups, cut across social and class lines, was incurable, and often resulted in long debilitating illnesses. To explore the social effects of tuberculosis, a group of Virginia Tech undergraduates spent the spring 2015 semester exploring “That Dread Disease,” using newspaper obituaries to document the lives lost to this disease. In this final of three posts, Circulating Now welcomes guest bloggers Grace Hemmingson, Scottie Lynch, Nancy Fowlkes Mason, and E. Thomas Ewing, who look at the cultural implications of advertising cures.
In his book, Microbes and the Microbe Killer, William Radam made the “simple” statement that all diseases have a single origin: “There is, in truth, but one disease.” Based on this assumption, Radam marketed a single product, the Microbe Killer, which he claimed could cure every disease. Drawing on a combination of personal narrative, pseudo-scientific jargon, and emotional appeals, Radam used his book to market a product that cost virtually nothing to produce yet yielded significant profits. The logo for Radam’s Microbe Killer, which decorated the cover of his most famous book, would have been familiar to American newspaper readers of the late nineteenth century. In the Virginia newspaper, Roanoke Times, for example, the words “microbe” and “Radam” appear on more than 200 pages in two years, 1890-1891, or approximately once every three days. These ads appeared with banner headlines proclaiming: “The Greatest Disease of the Age. All Diseases caused by Microbes!”, “Life Without Health is a Burden,” and “Nothing Succeeds Like Success.” Advertisements by the local agent in Roanoke included testimonials from local people who had “experienced great relief” and looked forward to regaining their health after taking Radam’s Microbe Killer.
The story behind this widespread advertising is reflective of both the direct experience and the cultural significance of tuberculosis in late nineteenth century America. As told by the author in his book, The Microbe Killer, Radam, as a sufferer of tuberculosis himself, grew disillusioned with the false promises of doctors and advertisements alike. By observing the contents of his stomach, he determined that there was only one type of microbe which caused all diseases. He became obsessed with finding a way to kill the microbes. To this end, he developed a product that he called the “Microbe Killer,” which he believed had cured him and would cure anyone who used it.
The advertising and marketing campaigns for Microbe Killer were successful because they appealed to a widespread fear of consumption. Radam created a sense of urgency by stating the dangerous microbe that caused all diseases was in everything that a person ate, drank, or breathed. He appealed broadly to the public by saying his cure was for everyone with consumption, including pregnant women and babies, as well as those sick with combinations of diseases. An advertising strategy based on personal experiences of sick patients was central to the commercial success of Radam’s Microbe Killer. By providing victims’ profiles with many symptoms, all of which could be cured, Radam positioned his product to provide the promise of a cure to almost anyone. Radam also provided a personal touch. Microbes and the Microbe Killer included pictures of Radam before and after he was “cured” by the Microbe Killer. The inclusion of these pictures emphasized Radam’s personality because it showed people that he had dealt with the same illnesses and fear they had. Not only was he a patient like they were, but as a cure developer he was special—even though he admitted to have had no medical training (and was actually a botanist and gardener by trade). For members of the public who also may have taken cures recommended by professionals and not seen any improvement, Radam’s natural cure might have seemed hopeful and even miraculous.
In the historical context in which Radam advertised his product, however, the growing public interest in microbes as the cause of disease allowed his claims about causes and cures to appear consistent with scientific advances. Radam offered the best of both worlds to consumers appearing as both “one of them” and also as a sort of expert due to his usage of scientific language and scientific methods. Radam freely made use of terms like “germs,” “bacteria,” and “microbe,” giving the impression that he was qualified to develop a cure. In fact, one of the advertisements that appeared in many newspapers featured a drawing of a magnifying glass, with a caption that made these connections clear to the reader: “See the microbes? They are in the air, in the water, in your blood and system. They are the real cause of disease. Radam’s Microbe Killer routs every germ of disease, purifies the blood, renovates the system, promotes good health at once.”
Advertisements for Radam’s microbe killer often appeared together with wire service reports and editorial commentaries revealing contemporary changes in the ways that experts and the public understood disease transmission and prevention. On December 24, 1890, for example, the Virginia newspaper, the Staunton Spectator, featured a front page report praising Dr. Koch as “a most attractive and popular figure” and declaring, “All the world now reads, talks, and thinks of Dr. Koch.” This article then provided a summary of Koch’s career culminating in his discovery of “the minute germ” that caused tuberculosis. On the very same page of the Staunton Spectator, several columns to the left, an ad for Radam’s Microbe Killer made claims that were far more exaggerated, but shared certain underlying features with this celebration of Koch’s science. Proclaiming Radam’s Microbe Killer as “the greatest discovery of the age,” the ad declared that the cure was “prepared on scientific principles,” starting “at the root of all diseases,” all of which could be cured “by removing the cause of the disease.” After listing a series of diseases, including catarrh, consumption, rheumatism, “any disease that causes you anxiety or inconvenience,” and “any disease that your doctor has pronounced incurable,” the solution was the same: “Give the Microbe Killer a Trial.” The ad then made remarkable claims that hundreds of people “in this city” have used this medicine that produced miracle cures, while many thousands have been cured “who have been pronounced incurable.” The ad then identified N. Wayt & Bro. as the sole agent for the Microbe Killer in Staunton. Yet the most striking element of this ad was the graphic, the same as appeared on the bottle, of a man with a club about to hit the grim reaper while pieces of a broken scythe lay around the skeleton’s feet.
The juxtaposition in newspapers of reports about medical discoveries and advertisements for medical cures such as Radam’s Microbe Killer is revealing of the tension between expert, popular, and commercial discourse in this context. In a similar manner, three weeks earlier, the Staunton Spectator published a brief report on Koch receiving the red eagle decoration from the Emperor in honor of his discovery. This page also had an advertisement for Radam’s Microbe Killer in the top left corner, with the same text as the ad cited above. Yet the more subtle form of advertising came in the form of three testimonials, which appeared in close proximity to the article about Koch, each praising the value of this treatment. Algie A. Hodge in Columbia, Tennessee, declared that Microbe Killer cured her servant’s dropsy, from which she had suffered for thirty-five years, while another letter came from Mrs. D. T. McGhee in Hinsleytown, Kentucky, who consumed three gallons of Microbe Killer in order to finally obtain relief from his lifetime affliction with dyspepsia. Finally, A. P. Mathews from Nashville, Tennessee declared that five months of treatment with the Microbe Killer made “entirely relieved” of his fifteen year spell of dyspepsia.
In the end, Radam’s extraordinary success in marketing this product not only made him rich—it also made his product an early target of efforts to monitor food and drugs. In April 1910 twelve cases of Radam’s Microbe Killer were seized, on the grounds of “false, exaggerated, and misleading” labels, and the contents were destroyed. Four years later, in July 1914, and following amendments in the Food and Drugs Act in 1912, a shipment of Radam’s Microbe Killer was seized by government agencies. After a hearing by a jury, more than 800 cartons and boxes of the Microbe Killer were destroyed. Yet advertisements for Radam’s Microbe Killer appeared even as these goods were being seized. On October 3, 1919, the Seattle Star published an advertisement from Bartell Drug Stores, which offered a No. 2 bottle of Radam’s Microbe Killer, regularly $1.00, now on sale for 83 cents.
In these posts Virginia Tech students, working under the direction of Professor Tom Ewing, explore themes related to tuberculosis, including reporting on medical discoveries, the cultural implications of advertising cures, and techniques for measuring the impact of this disease. By studying these patterns in the past, historians of medicine can contribute to contemporary and future responses to infectious diseases. This research made extensive use of the digitized collections of the National Library of Medicine as well as Medical Heritage Library in the form of national and Virginia medical journals, photographs and other images, and published books. More information about the project, including an online presentation documenting Virginia lives lost to tuberculosis, is available from the project site: http://ethomasewing.org/tbhistory/
Grace Hemmingson is a History and English major at Virginia Tech.
Scottie Lynch is a History major at Virginia Tech.
Nancy Fowlkes Mason is a History major from Virginia Tech.
E. Thomas Ewing is Professor of History and Associate Dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.