On the Water

Whitman Emulsion of Cod Liver Oil with Hypophosphites

Cod liver oil was used in northern European fishing communities for centuries as a remedy for ill health, before it became recognized by the medical establishment. Its popularity spread quickly in the United States after Edinburgh physician John Hughes Bennett published the first English-language treatise on cod liver oil in 1841. The oil was used to treat “wasting diseases” such as consumption (tuberculosis), and as a remedy for rickets. By the mid-19th century, the New England coast was producing 24, 000 gallons of the oil annually.

Yet despite its acknowledged medicinal value, the problem with cod liver oil remained its vile, nauseating, oily taste. To mask the taste, the oil was given in coffee, milk, or brandy, or taken with a pinch of salt, smoked herring, or tomato catsup. Pharmaceutical manufacturers created emulsions, made by mixing the oil with an emulsifying agent such as powdered acacia, water, sugar, and flavoring.

This bottle of cod liver oil emulsion was made around 1910 by the Whitman Chemical Company of Boston. The label states that it is one-third cod liver oil and 7% alcohol. It also contains hypophosphites, compounds of phosphorous, which were also thought to be effective in treating tuberculosis. At the time this bottle was manufactured, the value of cod liver oil as a medicine was questioned by many doctors. However, it remained popular as a general tonic and nutritive supplement, especially for children.

The use of cod liver oil would change dramatically after the discovery of vitamins and the role they play in promoting healthy growth and preventing diseases such as rickets (caused by a deficiency of Vitamin D). Cod liver oil is one of the best natural sources of vitamins A and D.

ID Number:
Whitman Chemical Company
Place Made:
Boston, Massachusetts
ca 1910
23 x 7.5 x 4.5 cm
Gift of Mario Casinelli