History

Turlington's Balsam, the 18th-century cure-all

In 1961, archaeologist Frank Ridley unearthed an empty bottle at the mouth of the Ghost River on Lake Abitibi
  • Jul 07, 2016
  • 423 words
  • 2 minutes
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In the 21st century, if we become sick or injured we can go to the nearest emergency room and receive reasonably prompt and effective care, but the explorers who settled the Canadian wilderness in the 18th century occasionally relied on more dubious cures.

In 1961, archaeologist Frank Ridley unearthed an empty bottle at the mouth of the Ghost River on Lake Abitibi. The clear glass was stamped with the words “By the King’s Royal Patent Granted To Robt. Turlington For His Invented Balsam of Life,” and, on its side, the date January 26, 1754.

His curiosity piqued, Ridley began to research the bottle’s erstwhile contents and their possible significance to the inhabitants of Ghost River Island. His findings, detailed in the July 1966 issue of the Canadian Geographical Journal, are a fascinating commentary on how far medical science has come in the past 260 years.

The artifact turned out to be a bottle of Turlington’s Balsam of Life, a mixture of essential oils and ammonia advertised in England and her colonies as a panacea for everything from cough to stomach complaints to kidney stones to paralysis.

Turlington’s Balsam is a typical example of a “patent medicine,” an elixir of questionable value sold over the counter as a miracle cure. The proof of a medicine’s effectiveness — besides how many exotic ingredients it claimed to include — was its royal endorsement.

As for how a bottle of the remedy ended up at an Aboriginal encampment in northeastern Ontario, Ridley surmises that it was likely procured at the Hudson’s Bay Company’s post in Moose Factory. Servants of the company were known to carry the medicine; it’s also mentioned in the writings of several explorers, including Alexander Mackenzie, who in 1789 proposed to cure the illness of a Cree warrior with a mixture of Turlington’s and water if the man promised to stop making war.

In that instance, the patient recovered, but two others Mackenzie treated with Turlington’s some years later at Bella Coola died, and Mackenzie was greeted with hostility upon his return from the Pacific coast.

Turlington’s Balsam was still in wide use as late as 1845; a medical inventory from one of John Rae’s Arctic voyages in search of the Franklin expedition includes epsom salts, castor oil and six bottles of Turlington’s.

The United States began cracking down on the sale of patent medicines in the early 20th century, but some products from the era survive today, albeit with revised claims, including Carter’s Little Pills, Vicks VapoRub and Bayer Aspirin.

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