Victorian Dietetics and Sugar-Free February.

It’s coming to the end of what has been for me, and for many other New Year’s resolution-keepers, “sugar-free February”. A whole month without any added or refined sugar. This move was partly inspired by my work, and partly inspired by a general commitment to self-care. I wasn’t ready to commit to “Dry-January”, but “Sugar-Free Feb” seemed manageable and aside from a few lapses (Valentine’s day for one), it’s been a successful experiment. I was dutifully horrified by all the things that have needlessly added sugar and so manage to sneak themselves into our diets, and I suspect I’m healthier for it – sugar certainly tastes sweeter now, no pun intended! Working as I do on gastrointestinal health in the nineteenth century, I am regularly visited by contrition as I read periodical essays, short stories, poems, and medical tracts about how important it is to attend to one’s dietetic needs.

The Victorians were preoccupied by food and the practices of eating, and gastrointestinal health was privileged as a lens through which to measure society. This seems particularly germane at a time when we are now more obsessed with our own dietary choices than ever before. Consider the rise of gluten-free, diary-free, vegetarian, vegan, and organic options in the supermarket; consider the obesity and diabetes “epidemics” that feature in the news on an almost daily basis, and it’s not hard to draw parallels between the nineteenth century and the twenty-first. Just this month, we had “roastie-gate” – or “toastie-gate”,  depending on your carby preference – where we were told that too crispy a roast potato (or too crunchy a PB and J) might pose a risk to our long term health – a panicked overreaction that appears to have little basis in the science.  Whether or not acrylamide poses a tangible risk to our health remains to be seen; however, the regimented attention to correct dietary practices might certainly be traced back to the nineteenth century.

The nineteenth century brought us the beginnings of organised vegetarianism (for health and ethical reasons), the recognition of the dangers of sugar and fat—“Pies and cakes are poisonous”⁠1 (Bow Bells 1871)—and the developing recognition of allergies and intolerances. ‘Strawberries’ noted one writer, as early as 1868, ‘that are so delicious to almost everybody, are poison to many,’ also remarking that figs in some people give rise to ‘a sensation like the tickling movement of ants upon the palate’—a clear description of anaphylaxis.⁠2  Articles explored the value of now-recognised dietary vices with amusingly entitled pretexts like ‘Coffee, is it a food?’ and ‘Alcohol: food, drink or poison?’ In the early decades of the century, our attitudes to sugar were too very different. ‘The plentiful use of sugar in diet is one of the best preventatives that has ever been discovered of the diseases that are produced by worms’, claimed Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, ‘Nature seems to have implanted a love for this aliment in all children, as it were on purpose to protect them from those diseases.’⁠3 The article goes on to deem sugar an antidote to fever, disorders of the breast, and even styles it an antiscurbotic. But the interest comes when the article turns to the aesthetic implications of sugar. The Cochin Chinese, it claims, require the body-guard of the King to take daily amounts of sugar (gotten by a small allowance of money) in order to do honour to their master by their handsome appearance. Indeed, contrary to current trends, the corpulence of an individual was often deemed a measure of their wealth, worth, and beauty. As the century drew on this began to change and the relative desirability of fatness was fiercely debated in the medical and popular press.

‘Is there any harm in getting fat?’ asked articles about diet – a question that now seems bewildering in its naivety. One writer concluded that it is only a problem since the introduction of seats in assemblies and the confined spaces of vehicles (particularly public transport) where ‘fat men and crinolined ladies have become annoyances’.⁠4 In the 1860s, a plethora of articles addressed the ‘Banting method’, which might be taken as a model for the first fad diet. This diet, which will be familiar to you all in one guise of another, consisted of limiting one’s intake of sugar and carbs, and eating more vegetables. Although by today’s standards this “diet” seems more like sensible life style advice, some writers still warned against taking it to extremes and saw it as their duty to remind the public of the bodily requirements of some fat in the diet: ‘Like every man who rides a hobby, having mounted his Pegasus, he would rise till he scorches himself, or sink till he cannot recover. We shall endeavour to rein in this ill-regulated steed.’⁠5 This attitude is unsurprising given that contemporaneous opinion pieces were still celebrating the delights of sugar as ‘not only a condiment; it is a most important article in diet, and aid to digestion’.⁠6 This same article noted that ‘throughout the whole of the great class of animals headed by man, from elephant down to shrew mouse, there is one sort of tooth—the sweet tooth—common to all.’ ‘Even the canary bird understands sugar,’ writes the author, arguing for its function as a tool for garnering affection and training animals.

Along with the growing recognition of the dangers of excess fat, came a sense of social responsibility and a renegotiation of national identity. Depictions of John Bull were particularly controversial, a national representation that The Leisure Hour deemed a ‘sad relic’ at the end of the century.

‘This heavy overfed individual is still held up to our rising generation, and the world, as the type of British perfection […] surely there are members of the Royal Society who could undertake to give us some better representation of a physically perfect gentleman of the nineteenth century?’⁠7

As societal values began to shift, articles encouraged the public to ‘pity’ rather than ‘despise’ those who are overweight, ‘people are often too cruel to the fat person who helplessly plumps down upon them in the crowded ‘bus, or wedges them into a corner in some throng round the door of a place of amusement.’⁠8 However, sentiments like this did little to empower overweight individuals, who were framed as “jolly fat friends” or as miserable loners who lived in denial and helplessness. Both of these perspectives are showcased in a poem published in Fun in 1867, in which an unhappy sugar-broker piles on the pounds following hollow success.

His bulk increased—no matter that—
He tried the more to toss it—
He never spoke of it as “fat”,
But “adipose deposit”.
Upon my word, it seems to me,
Unpardonable vanity,


‘A Discontented Sugar Broker’ Fun 1(14 Dec 1867) p.137. 

(And worse than that!)
To call your fat,
An “adipose deposit.”

The final lines reveal the bodily impact of his excess weight, as well the social judgement that follows.

Despite the stigmatisation of corpulence that accompanied changes in dietary knowledge, there were some positive lessons that we might benefit from remembering. Writers speculated on the importance of meal size, eating times, the quantity and quality of food, of exercise and of mental attitude in ways that ultimately paved the ways for a more personalised approach to health. Dietetic treatments enabled individuals to take control of their health in new ways, as is evidenced by the many letters written to the popular press reporting of self-experimentation.

In pursuit of the treatment of indigestion, headaches, and depression, the general public experimented with “free from” diets, and many with great success. However, as an article in 1886 highlighted, what was healthy for one person was not always the case for another, ‘in some cases abstention from pastry might be desirable, in others from cheese, and so on.’⁠9  In the Daily Telegraph today (21st Feb) one article criticised the ‘10,000 steps a day myth’ arguing that the one-size fits all rule could do more damage than good. Dr Steve Flatt of Liverpool University is even quoted as comparing the plethora of health-related apps to the ‘snake oil salesmen of the 1860s’. Another article, just below that in the print edition, claimed that even yo-yo diets are better than not dieting at all (despite the supporting study having only been carried out in mice). Thus, I think it behooves us all to listen to the good advice of All The Year Round who maintained that ‘in the matter of diet, everyone should be guided by experience and not rely on the experience of others.’⁠10 As I come to the end of what has been a (mostly) sugar-free February, I am pleasantly surprised by what self-experimentation has taught me about my own body. So I’ll cross my fingers for continued resolve in the spirit of being attentive to my dietetic needs, as I contemplate taking on “meat-free March.”

Dr Emilie Taylor-Brown

Postdoctoral Researcher, Diseases of Modern Life

‘Notes About Health’ Bow Bells: a Magazine of General Literature and Art for Family Reading 13(18 Jan 1871)338 p.612.

‘Facts About Food’ Bow Bells: a Magazine of General Literature and Art for Family Reading 8(15 April 1868)194 p.286.

‘Medicinal and Nutritious Properties of Sugar Cane’ Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal 25(21 Jul 1932) p.195.

‘Corpulence’ The New Monthly Magazine 131(May 1864)521 pp.116-26. (p.116-17).

Ibid, p.116.

‘Sweets’ All the Year Round 5(8 Jun 1861)111 pp.246-49. (p.246).

Alfred Schofield, ‘The Great Food Question’ The Leisure Hour (Sept 1897) pp.736-740. (p.740).

‘Leaves from a London SketchBook’ Bow Bells: a Magazine of General Literature and Art for Family Reading 29(11 Jan 1895)367 pp.54-55. (p.54).

‘Diet and Dyspepsia’ All The Year Round 37(6 Feb 1886)897 pp.545-48. (p.548).

10 Ibid, p.546.

Lunchtime Talk: Germs Revisited

On Thursday 16 March 2017, Dr Emilie Taylor-Brown will be giving a talk with Dr Jamie Lorimer (School of Geography and the Environment) and Dr Nicola Fawcett (Medical Sciences Division) on the subject of Germs Revisited.

The talk will discuss bad germs, friendly bacteria and whether we need to rethink our relationships with the microscopic world! The talk will draw on past and present ideas from medicine, fiction and art to discuss new ways of thinking about human-microbe relationships along with developing trends in microbiome studies.

The talk will be at 12.30 at St Luke’s Chapel, Radcliffe Humanities, Woodstock Road. All are welcome and sandwiches will be provided.

The event has been organised through The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, and is free to attend. Booking is recommended via the TORCH website.

The talk is part of a programme of events to celebrate the European Research Council’s 10th anniversary week from 13-20 March.  More information on the anniversary is available on the ERC’s website.


Magic Lantern and Science Workshop: 17 March 2017

The Constructing Scientific Communities, Diseases of Modern Life and the Million Pictures projects are pleased to announce a special workshop, hosted at London’s Royal Institution, to consider the multiple relationships that existed between popular science and the magic lantern, with an emphasis on the long nineteenth century. Papers will consider magic lantern slides, instruments, and instrument makers, as well as considering issues of curation and performance.

A special attraction will be Jeremy Brooker’s evening entertainment concerning John Tyndall’s celebrated lectures at the Royal Institution. All workshop attendees will be also welcome to join this public lecture without charge.

Attendance is free, but space is limited. To attend, email: by March 1st, 2017

A copy of the event poster is available here


9:30-10:15 – Coffee on arrival

10:15-10:30 – Introductory Comments. Sally Shuttleworth (University of Oxford) and Geoff Belknap (Leicester University), Constructing Scientific Communities Project. 

10:30-12:00 – Panel 1: Approaches to Science and the Magic Lantern

  • Iwan Morus (University of Aberystwyth), ‘Seeing the Light: Fact and Artefact in Victorian Lantern Culture’
  • Sarah Dellmann (Utrecht University),  ‘Images of Science and Scientists: Lantern Slides of Excursions from Utrecht University, NL (c. 1900-1950)’
  • Emily Hayes (Exeter University), ‘Fashioned by physics: the ‘scope and methods’ of Halford Mackinder’s geographical imagination’

12:00-1:00 – Lunch

1:00-2:30 – Panel 2: Magic Lanterns and Museums/Curation

  • Charlotte New and Meagan Smith (Royal Institution), ‘Shedding light on yesterday: Highlighting the slide collections of the RI and relevant preservation’
  • Frank Gray (Screen archive South-east, Brighton), ‘Working with Archive Collections: Development, Access and Historical Context’

2:30-3:00 – Coffee break

3:00-4:30 – Panel 3: Materiality of the lantern

  • Phillip Roberts (York University), ‘Science and Media in the Industrial Revolution: Instrument Makers and the Magic Lantern Trade’
  • Kelly Wilder (De Montfort University), ‘From Lantern Slides to Powerpoint: Photography and the Materiality of Projection’
  • Deac Rossell (Goldsmiths University), ‘Changing Places: Tracking Magic Lantern Culture from Physics to Chemistry to Cinema’

4:30-4:45 – Closing Remarks. Joe Kember and Richard Crangle (Exeter University), Million Pictures Project.

6:15-7:15 – Drinks Reception

7:30-9:00 – Evening lantern show for the general public:

  • Jeremy Brooker, A Light on Albemarle Street: John Tyndall and the Magic Lantern

The talk is part of a programme of events to celebrate the European Research Council’s 10th anniversary week from 13-20 March.  More information on the anniversary is available on the ERC’s website.



Doctor, Doctor: Global and Historical Perspectives on the Doctor-Patient Relationship – One-day Symposium – Registration now open

We are pleased to announce that registration for the one-day symposium on global and historical perspectives on the doctor-patient relationship is now open. The event is being held at St Anne’s College (University of Oxford) on 24 March 2017.

You can sign up here. Tickets are £30 for standard delegates and £20 for concessions. This includes lunch, refreshments and a drinks reception. Please note that there are separate registration options for speakers and delegates – do ensure you select the right one.

A draft copy of the programme is available to download here: doctor-doctor-symposium-programme. The keynote speaker is Anna Elsner (University of Zürich).

This one-day symposium is generously supported by St Anne’s College, The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities (TORCH) through a Medical Humanities Programme Grant, and the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project Constructing Scientific Communities.

The symposium is organised by Alison Moulds (St Anne’s) – DPhil Candidate on Constructing Scientific Communities – and Sarah Jones (Oriel). You can contact them here:

For more details, visit the symposium website:


The Stresses and Strains of Modern Life

Professor Sally Shuttleworth’s blog for the British Academy on The Stresses and Strains of Modern Life is now available to read here. The blog is part of a series by British Academy Fellows who hold European Research Council Awards.

Professor Shuttleworth was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2015. Elections are made annually in the humanities and social sciences for distinguished academics in recognition of outstanding research.


Why are some people afraid of cats?

The language of phobia is so common today that we scarcely give it a second thought. Yet it was not until the end of the 19th century that medicine turned its attention to forms of irrational fear, following the initial medical diagnosis of agoraphobia – fear of open, public spaces – by the German physician Carl Westphal in 1871.

Westphal had been puzzled why three of his patients, all professional men leading otherwise full lives, became struck with fear when having to cross an open city space. All were aware of the irrationality of their fears, but were powerless to overcome them.

The idea that individuals who were otherwise sane and rational could nonetheless be afflicted with forms of inexplicable fear was quickly taken up, both in the medical and popular culture of the era. When the American psychologist G Stanley Hall published his Synthetic Genetic Study of Fear in the American Journal of Psychology in 1914 he identified no less than 136 different forms of pathological fear, all with their own Greek or Latinate names.

These stretched from the more general categories of agoraphobia and claustrophobia or haptophobia (fear of touch), to very specific forms such as amakaphobia (fear of carriages), pteronophobia (fear of feathers), and what appears a very Victorian, moral category, hypegiaphobia (fear of responsibility). There was also, of course, ailurophobia: the fear of cats.

This urge to classify created a vivid cultural and psychological map of the fears and anxieties of a society that had experienced the rapid social changes of industrialisation and the decline of religion in the post-Darwinian era. Society was turning inwards, and to the sciences of the mind, for answers.

Tony Alter/Flickr, CC BY

136 phobias

Hall’s research on phobias stretches back to the 1890s, when he sent out hundreds of questionnaires for people to fill in about the forms of their fears. Many of the answers were from school children. The answers make fascinating reading, although Hall, infuriatingly, only gives us snippets.

There is, for example, the English lady who claimed she had been “robbed of the joy of childhood by religious fears” and had decided instead to turn to the devil “who she found kinder”. A boy of ten was more resourceful and decided to meet his fears head on. Hall wrote of him: “Decided to go to hell when he died; rubbed brimstone on him to get used to it, etc.” A world of possibilities is opened up in that “etc”. What else did the boy do to ensure he ended up in hell?

To our eyes, it is clear that there were obvious social and religious causes for these particular forms of fear. But Hall argued, in Darwinian vein, that fears and phobias are largely the product of our evolutionary past, and come to us as inherited forms from our remote ancestry.

Feline fears

One particular phobia that attracted considerable medical and popular attention was ailurophobia – that fear of cats. Medics themselves tapped into the public interest, writing in the pages of popular magazines. The American neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell, for example, reworked a paper first published in the Transactions of the Association of American Physicians in 1905 for the Ladies Home Journal of 1906, giving it the far snappier title, “Cat Fear”.

Like Hall, Mitchell also sent out questionnaires, exploring forms and potential causes of fear of cats. He was also interested in the seeming ability of some sufferers to be able to detect, without seeing it, when a cat is in a room. Mitchell collected testimony from “trustworthy observers” of various practical experiments undertaken – cats tempted with cream into cupboards, and then unsuspecting sufferers lured into the room to see if they detected the alien presence. Initially he was sceptical: the hysterical girl who claimed she always knew when a cat was in the room was right only a third of the time. But he concluded that many of his cases could indeed detect hidden cats, even when they could neither see nor smell them.

Chill Winston.
Jerry/Flickr, CC BY-SA

In trying to account for the phenomenon he ruled out asthma, and evolutionary inherited fears (those terrified of cats are often perfectly comfortable on seeing lions). As to the detection, he suggested that perhaps emanations from the cat “may affect the nervous system through the nasal membrane, although unrecognised as odors”. Mitchell nonetheless remained baffled by “unreasonable terror of cats”. He concluded with the observation that victims of cat fear record “how even strange cats seem to have an unusual desire to be near them, to jump on their laps or to follow them”.

The dawn of the internet appears to have intensified our cultural fascination with cats. Where Mitchell and Hall sent out questionnaires to obtain data on fears, millions now write, in a reversal of roles, to self-declared experts to share their experiences, and have their questions answered. According to one such site, Cat World, one of the most frequently asked questions is “Why do cats go to people who do not like them?”.

Taking a leaf out of Stanley Hall’s book, the answers invariably invoke evolution: the frightened person is not a threat. But like Mitchell, they still seem unable to answer the key question: why do only some people develop such terror in the first place? And that is, of course, another area for today’s researchers.

The Conversation

Sally Shuttleworth, Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

One Day Workshop 10th March 2017. Mind Reading: Mental Health and the Written Word


Venue: Studio Theatre, dlr LexIcon, Dublin

10 March 2017

Conference Organisers:

Dr. Elizabeth Barrett (UCD) and Dr. Melissa Dickson (Oxford).

Keynote Speakers:

Prof. James V. Lucey (TCD),

Prof. Fergus Shanahan (UCC) and

Prof. Sally Shuttleworth (Oxford).

This one-day programme of talks and workshops seeks to explore productive interactions between literature and mental health both historically and in the present day. It aims to identify the roles that writing and narrative can play in medical education, patient and self-care, and/or professional development schemes.

Bringing together psychologists, psychiatrists, interdisciplinary professionals, GPs, service users, and historians of literature and medicine, we will be asking questions about literature as a point of therapeutic engagement. We will explore methods that can be used to increase the well-being and communication skills of healthcare providers, patients and family members.

Conference Coordinator:

Victoria Sewell (UCD)

Book here with UCD

Event Schedule


9.30 Arrival and Registration


10.00am–10.45 Introduction and Keynote Address: 

‘Listening to patients, telling their stories’. Professor James V. Lucey, Trinity College Dublin.

10.45–11.00 Coffee break 

11.00am –12.30 Workshops

Workshop A: Children’s Books Ireland and the Book Doctor Project.

Workshop B: Poetry of Disquiet: Professor Femi Oyebode, University of Birmingham.

Workshop C: Lived Experiences- Memoirs, meaning and mental illness.: With the RE:FOCUS group led by Dr Anne Jeffers, College of Psychiatry of Ireland.

12.30–13.30 Lunch at Brambles Café 

13.30–14.15 Keynote Address: ‘Mining Medicine from Literature’.

Professor Fergus Shanahan, University College Cork.

14.50 –15.40 Workshops

Workshop D: Bibliotherapy: The Power of Words Project and the HEAL Project: Health Education and Literacy for our Community,

Workshop E: Diseases of Modern Life: Nineteenth-Century Perspectives on stress and overwork: Dr. Melissa Dickson and Researchers from the ERC-funded Diseases of Modern Life

Workshop F: The Shared Experiences of Clinicians: Led by Dr. Elizabeth Barrett, Associate Professor, UCD Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Ms. Caroline Ward, UCD Student Counselling Service, Dr. Niamh Geaney, GP and writer, University of Limerick.

15.40pm Coffee break 

16.00 –16.45 Keynote Address: 

‘Literary Texts and Medical Case Studies’.  Professor Sally Shuttleworth, University of Oxford.

16.45 Feedback Q&A and Closing Remarks

Goblins and Indigestion: the Tale of the Christmas Microbe

On my latest adventure into the periodical archives, I came across a fitting subject for a New Year’s post—the story of the Christmas microbe! This short story, published in Fun in 1898 follows the capers of a festive microorganism on his mission to bring christmas joy to an unlikely city merchant. The merchant, like Dickens’ Scrooge, is initially resistant to the delights of the holiday, shunning his children and wallowing in the memory of his dead wife. However, soon the Christmas microbe is on the case, a microorganism that is – it boasts – ‘not the sort you can kill with a sniff of carbolic [acid]’.⁠1 By slipping into his glass of grog, the Christmas microbe infects his merchant with Christmas cheer, turning him into ‘a perfect hotbed of Christmas germs’ who comes home laden with toys for his children.

This story is particularly interesting for my research as it articulates a vision of microbial contagion that is not pathogenic, but rather has a positive impact on society. Post germ theory, this story offers us a more benign view of the microscopic world, and one which speaks to the connection between gastrointestinal health and the emotions, or to what is now called the gut-brain axis. Indeed, the microbe establishes itself as a ‘cousin’ of indigestion, gesturing toward both its functional similarities, and to the overindulgences of the festive season. The opening of the story frames the microbe using the lexis of food and drink: ‘its face simply sparkled with fun and merriment, of the wassail bowl, baron of beef, and the steaming plum pudding,’—an association that recalls the ‘undigested bit of beef’, ‘blot of mustard’ or ‘crumb of cheese’ that Scrooge implicates in the appearance of the ghostly apparition that begins his own Christmas tale.

screen-shot-2017-01-02-at-21-26-05The microbe itself is depicted as a demon or goblin-like creature, which seems to be a common illustration for indigestion—in 1888, for example, Adolphus E. Bridger published a treatise on digestion entitled ‘The Demon of Dyspepsia’, while in 1892 Mary Bates Dimond wrote a poem, ‘Micrology Against Mythology’, which argued that the ‘fay and goblin [that] once held carnival of magic and of mirth’ had been replaced by the ‘arrogant Bacillus’.⁠2  Sharpe’s London Magazine of Entertainment and Instruction for General Reading published a morality in rhyme called ‘Molly’s Dream’, which too used a gobliny aesthetic to warn against indigestion. Playing on the homophonic goblin and gobblin’, the poem recounts the story of Molly, who suffers a nightmare after indulging in a late-night feast:

Molly, our Molly, had sat up rather late—
Molly, our Molly, cooking was her fate,
And she had been very hurried,
With pies and puddings flurried—
With this to stew, and that to steep,
Until at length she fell asleep,
And in her sleep she saw the dreadful goblin.⁠3

At length the goblin speaks to her, proclaiming itself ‘the imp of indigestion’:

“I’m the imp of indigestion!
Play—the horrible suggestion—
With folks’ insides, who love things rich:
You and I, Moll, can serve out sich.
I love you ‘cause you plague your race—
I love you for your fat, round face—
So you, sweetheart, shall be my own dear goblin.”

Molly awakens with a shriek; however, far from having made some Faustian deal or having been kidnapped by the Goblin king a la Bowie in Labyrinth, she is met with the realities of her lack of willpower.

In fact, in answer to our question,
The doctor said ’twas indigestion;
The gobbling often was the cause of goblin.

With this cheerful moral ringing in your ears, I’ll leave you to finish off the holiday chocolate. Happy New Year from the Diseases of Modern Life team. May your grog remain long infested with the joyous contagion of the Christmas microbe!

Dr Emilie Taylor-Brown
Postdoctoral Researcher, Diseases of Modern Life.

1 ‘A Christmas Microbe’ Fun 67(4 Jan 1898)1704 p.17.

2 Mary Bates Dimond, ‘Micrology Against Mythology’ The Independent, Devoted to the Consideration of Politics, Social and Economic Tendencies, History, Literature, and the Arts 44(27 Oct 1892)229, p.1.

3 S. C. Hall, ‘Molly’s Dream’ Sharpe’s London Magazine of Entertainment and Instruction for General Reading 33(July 1868) p.91.

Pills for Our Ills: Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People

This is a guest post by Alice Tsay, a PhD candidate in English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Alice’s dissertation, “Matters of Taste: Digesting Difference in Victorian and Edwardian Culture” examines the rhetorical functions of food and ingestion within discourses of difference during the long nineteenth century.

The folk singer Pete Seeger tells a story about a girl who sickens and is prescribed Dr. Johnson’s Pink Pills for Pale People by the doctor. After her father makes up a song for her on the phone, the ditty gets repeated through the telephone wires until proper communications are drowned out. Eventually, the government cuts down the telephone poles and wires, throwing them overboard far from shore. In the watery depths, however, the wires continue to resonate with the sounds of the song:

Pink pills for pale people,

Pink pills for pale people.

Pink pills, pink pills…

While fanciful, Seeger’s story takes its inspiration from an actual patent medicine called Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People. Though he turns it into a fable about the white noise of commercialism in modern society, the tale also suggests the ubiquity and pervasiveness of the product to which it alludes.

L0058211 Dr Williams' 'Pink Pills', London, England, 1850-1920 Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images Dr William’s ‘Pink Pills’ were advertised as an iron rich tonic for the blood and nerves to treat anaemia, clinical depression, poor appetite and lack of energy. The tablets were originally advertised as “Pink Pills for Pale People”. Users of the product claimed the pills could even cure paralysis.  The patent for the pills was bought by an American politician, Senator George T Fulford (1852-1905) in 1890. Fulford made the product an international success. maker: G T Fulford and Company Limited, maker: Dr Williams Medicine Company Place made: London, Greater London, England, United Kingdom made: 1850-1920 Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Dr Williams’ ‘Pink Pills’, London, England, 1850-1920
Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images

First formulated in Canada in 1886, Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People quickly made their way across the world, appearing in advertisements in dozens of countries by the early 20th century. These advertisements claimed that the pills would cure nearly any ailment, including eczema, rickets, and paralysis. Unsurprisingly, the company’s outsized claims drew complaints from both consumers and professional associations. By the 1910s, Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People had gained a reputation in North America and Great Britain as the archetypal quack cure, part of a gullible past with no place in modern medical practice.

In China, however, these pills met with a slightly different fate. Marketed in English language publications in Shanghai from the early 1900s onward, Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills also appeared in Chinese-language publications from the 1910s through the early 1940s. In the mid-1920s, these Chinese advertisements went from suggesting that the product could be procured ‘wherever Western medicines were sold’ to declaring that it would be available ‘at all pharmacies’, the latter suggesting much greater social saturation. By 1941, adverts sent customers directly to the National Department of Health (guomin zhengfu weisheng shu), a governmental entity whose focus on establishing public sanitation standards has been seen as a main component of developing modernity in Shanghai.

Though this trajectory of growing legitimacy seems surprising, several features of these pills would have eased their integration into the lives of Chinese consumers. While new Western imports such as deodorant, powdered milk, and oatmeal started out as totally unfamiliar products, the wan or pill form of medication in China dates back several centuries, as medicinal powders formed into a wax-covered ball. Moreover, as a purported cure-all, the pills were a good fit for the symptom- rather than disease-based approach central to traditional Chinese medicine. Marketers further catered to the audience by translating ‘Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People’ into weilianshi dayisheng hongse buwan in Chinese, or ‘Doctor Weilianshi Red Supplement Pills’. With alliteration abandoned, the pink pills became red (though merely in name), taking on a color with greater cultural resonance and existing precedence in traditional medicinal packaging.

The story of Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People in Shanghai is an accumulation of paradoxes, both in comparison to its Western origins and in the context of China itself. To start with, it was a foreign product that was familiarized through the form of traditional Chinese medicine. Beyond that, it was one that increased in popularity in the wake of the New Culture and May Fourth Movements of the 1910s and 1920s, which reacted against both traditional Chinese culture and what was seen as excessive imperialist influence. These seeming contradictions reveal not only the tangled processes of history at a local level, but also the hybrid cultural pathways that contributed to the formation of global modernity.


Bergère, Marie-Claire. Shanghai: China’s Gateway to Modernity. Translated by Janet Lloyd. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009. Print.

“Cool Things—Pink Pills for Pale People.” Kansas Historical Society. December 2014. Web. 28 November 2016.

Go, Simon. Hong Kong Apothecary: A Visual History of Chinese Medicine Packaging. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2003. Print.

Illustrated London News. Retrieved from The Illustrated London News Historical Archive: 1842-2003. London, England: Gale Cengage Learning. Web. 28 November 2016.

Liang You Hua Bao [The Young Companion]. Shanghai: Shanghai Shu Dian, 1986-1989. Print.

Seeger, Pete and Paul Dubois Jacobs. “Pink Pills for Pale People.” Pete Seeger’s Storytelling Book. San Diego; New York; London: Harcourt, Inc., 2000. Print.

Alice Tsay