Dr Barbara Brookes
There is an irresistible lure to self-medication as the lines of herbal preparations, oils and supplements in supermarkets and specialty shops suggest. For companies, ‘health’ products are clearly good business. People like to feel that they are, in some way, in control of their own health. Proprietary firms have long catered to this desire which avoids an expensive and time-consuming visit to the doctor. Dunedin was home to a staple of my childhood days: the syrupy and sweet ‘Maltexo’ which my mother thought was very good for her five children; we happily downed tablespoons of it daily in the 1960s.
Maltexo was produced by the Wilson Malt Extract Company Ltd at Willowbank Dunedin.
Some nineteenth century proprietary medicines were less benign.
‘Chlorodyne’ was a popular over the counter preparation that contained morphine, chloroform, hemp, oil of peppermint, tincture of capsicum and treacle. This product was widely advertised in newspapers throughout the colony, said to cure “cholera, dysentery, diarrhoea, cramp, ague, fever, rheumatism, consumption, asthma, cough &c”. In addition, Chlorodyne was said to relieve “pain of any kind, soothes the restlessness of fever, and imparts the most refreshing sleep, without producing or leaving any of the unpleasant effects of opium.” While there is no doubt that Chlorodyne was a powerful analgesic, it was also extremely addictive.
One South Dunedin housewife, Emmeline Gallaway, took Chlorodyne regularly for an ‘internal complaint’ in the 1890s. Emmeline began by buying half ounce bottles but reached the stage where she was consuming two six ounce bottles every seven days. As a result, her husband was deeply in debt to the local chemist. A police inspection of the premises after Emmeline was murdered on New Year’s Eve 1900, found 58 large-size Chlorodyne bottles, 150 medium, and 7 small ones and a large number of bottles outside, broken up and buried. The sergeant also found a bill from the chemist for £29 6s 6d. At the time of his arrest on suspicion of Emmeline’s murder, Thomas Gallaway reportedly said, ‘My wife was a good woman, only for one thing—she was ruining me through this Chlorodyne.’ He then shook his head and said ‘She is gone now, and I don’t care what becomes of me.’
Emmeline Gallaway’s self medication led to a family tragedy. Since that time, there is much more control over the content of proprietary medications. Whether, however, such self-medication does anyone any good is an open question. I’ve recently given up my daily dose of expensive fish oil after hearing Auckland University’s Dr Andrew Grey on National Radio. He reported that his meta-study suggested that there is absolutely no evidence of any beneficial effect. I had hoped those little capsules would help stave off dementia and heart disease but it seems I merely boosted profits for a ‘health’ product company.
 Wellington Independent, 24 June 1862, 2
 For the details of this case see Barbara Brookes, ‘Marriage: the Gendered Contract,’ in B. Brookes, A. Cooper and R. Law, eds. Sites of Gender: Women, Men & Modernity in Southern Dunedin, 1890-1939, Auckland University Press, 2003, pp. 151-189.
 Is taking fish oil a waste of time and money? – Radio New Zealand, Nine To Noon, Thursday 9 June 2016
Dr Barbara Brookes is co-editor of Corpus.