Nervease Co.



nerveaseco-2-rb23a     nerveaseco-2-rb23bvc


Nervease was one of the earliest patent medicines specifically advertised as a headache and fever remedy. The principal ingredient of virtually all of these pioneer products, classified in medical terms as analgesics (pain relievers) or antipyretics (fever reducers), was acetanilide. Most of those who used Nervease, and the many other proprietary medicines like it, never realized that acetanilide was a poison that could cause their death. However, acetanilide’s potentially poisonous nature became a major flash point during the Pure Food and Drug Act wars. Since proprietary medicine manufacturers regarded their formulae as private, they did not disclose their ingredients. From the end of the Civil War, when proprietary medicines became readily available, to 1906, they successfully blocked governmental efforts at all levels to force such disclosure. Even after the original 1906 federal legislation mandated listing contents on the packaging, product advertising remained completely unregulated. Not only did manufacturers who complied with the law by listing acetanilide in small print not warn of its potential harm, some even affirmatively averred in much larger print that their products contained no poison, or even in the accompanying literature denied its presence. The fight to banish acetanilide as medicine was one of the longest and most difficult waged by the Food and Drug Administration, continuing for a full generation after 1906.


1894 AD

Yet, acetanilide was regarded as a miracle drug when it was first found to be an antipyretic at the end of the Nineteenth Century. Actually, that entire century was an age of astounding chemical discoveries. As coal became an important source of fuel, the entire field of organic chemistry took shape, for the clever use of coal’s waste products, most notably coal tar, led to the discovery and exploitation of a multitude of useful chemical compounds. The earliest significant coal tar derivative was aniline discovered in 1826. It soon became the basis of synthetic dyes, giving rise to an entirely new industry. Acetanilide, discovered a few years later, also found use in the dyeing industry, but, by mid-century, had proved to be of only minor importance.


1894 AD

Suddenly, when acetanilide’s ability to reduce fevers was discovered in 1886, it was heralded as the newest wonder of the age. As with many such amazing drugs, the discovery was purely serendipitous. Arnold Cahn and Paul Hepp, two young assistants in the department of medicine at the University of Strassburg in Germany were assigned by the superior, Adolf Kussmaul, to investigate cures for intestinal worms by dosing patients with naphthalene, itself another coal tar derivative, which had already proved useful as an internal antiseptic in certain limited circumstances. However, the test results proved problematic. Cahn and Hepp found that the drug they were administering did not reduce worm infestations, but did reduce the fevers of patients, an effect never previously observed when treating subjects with naphthalene. Since naphthalene had never been shown to influence body temperature, Cahn and Hepp ultimately reasoned that they must have actually administered another substance to their patients. When they requested their chemical supplier, Kopp’s Pharmacy of Strassburg, to re-check its records, they discovered that Kopp’s had, in fact, sent Hepp acetanilide. Once Cahn and Hepp published their findings hailing the discovery of a new antipyretic, an acetanilide manufacturing industry immediately sprang up in Germany. Its low cost of production meant the proprietary medicine industry in the United States quickly adopted it both as an analgesic and an antipyretic, and obstinately clung to it as a principal ingredient of these classes of proprietaries long after its poisonous quality had been revealed.


1896 AD

To those who ingested large quantities of acetanilide, the danger manifested itself in the form of cyanosis, a bluish cast to the skin which people develop when their bodies are seriously starved for oxygen. When these cyanotic patients reported that they had recently taken the new acetanilide-based headache remedies, doctors quickly discovered that when acetanilide is metabolized by the body, it partially transforms to aniline. From treating a generation of poisoned dye plant workers, doctors already knew that aniline altered the structure of hemoglobin, the complex protein in the red cells of blood which carries oxygen from the lungs throughout the body. Aniline induces methemoglobinemia, a condition in which methemoglobin — oxygen binding sites structures (heme groups) containing ferric ions [FE+3] rather than ferrous ions [FE+2] — begins to supplant the normal four heme groups within the hemoglobin protein molecules as they travel in the blood through the lungs. Ferric ions (which eventually were demonstrated to have their crucial d sub-shell valence orbitals, where the oxygen electrons would orbit when they bonded, blocked by its own higher energy electrons) do not form the requisite bond with oxygen that the ferrous ions in hemoglobin do. As available oxygen binding sites fall within the hemoglobin protein, the shape of the entire hemoglobin protein alters causing the remaining ferrous ion heme groups to hold their own oxygen molecules more tightly, further reducing the normal oxygen exchange rate until the body can literally starve for oxygen. Blood starved for oxygen reflects blue, hence the cyanosis that doctors observed.



1899 AD

Despite a quickly accumulating body of medical evidence demonstrating its danger, and warnings published in medical journals from the 1890s to the 1930s, acetanilide was cheap and accessible, so the proprietary industry capitalized on its availability and continued to use it for fifty more years. The argument made by the industry then, as it is still made in certain kinds of disputed cases today, is that even if a product is poison, if its administration is properly controlled, the benefit experienced by the patient outweighs the potential harm. The difficulty in the case of acetanilide was that it was readily available and control, in the form of dosage, was left completely in the hands of the individual consumer.


1900c AD

Nervease was a typical fever reducer. It manufactured by the Nervease Co. in the Jamaica Plains district of Boston. The proprietor of the Nervease Co. was Joseph B. Locke, a pharmacist who otherwise ran a modern drugstore. In 1892 he is recorded as having petitioned the City of Boston for the latest in technology, an electric street light, to illuminate the corner where his store was located, and, in 1899, his store was praised in a trade magazine as featuring the latest and most up-to-date features:


However, little now can be ascertained about Locke himself, perhaps, in part, because he bears a fairly commonly occurring name. While there are historical entries about many different Joseph Lockes, this particular Joseph Locke, having never been a grandee of the proprietary medicine industry, was never profiled in the kind of Whos-Who-type booster books of the pre-World War I era. Census records do outline the barest bones of his life. They reveal he was born in Waltham, Massachusetts in 1857 of parents, Hozea and Elizabeth Locke, who themselves had come from Maine. In 1882, he married Marietta Skinner, and had a son, Edward. His wife died in 1897. In 1900, his son still lived with him, but by 1910, he listed himself as a widower, living only with a housekeeper. By 1920, he was living with his son’s family and in 1930 he disappears even from his son’s household. Possibly he died as late as 1936. Modern records reveal that his grandson and namesake died in 2003 at age 86.


1900c Ad

As a product, Nervease gained greater prominence than its maker. Locke began to place ads for it around 1890, just as soon as acetanilide became available commercially, and by 1893, Locke was actively promoting Nervease in a grand manner:


By 1898, Locke was employing an ad agency to handle the Nervease account, and it was a significant enough client so the advertising trade papers took note when  J. J. Riegel of Boston carried its business with him during his move from the Pettingall & Co. ad agency to the newly formed Walter C. Lewis Co. ad agency.


1900c Ad

Despite the continual warfare over the use of acetanilide and the gradually more stringent standards, hewing toward “truth in advertising” by insisting on demonstrable scientific evidence to support advertised claims imposed by amendments to the Pure Food and Drug Act, Nervease continued to be manufactured and sold for almost fifty years with acetanilide as its principal medicinal ingredient. In 1939, the government finally brought this action against Nervease:


Two significant observations shed light on this proceeding and decision. Note by this late date the company was both disclosing that acetanilide is present in the medicine, as was required by the letter of the law, and even was counseling in its literature that too many doses could not be taken too close together in time, as medical prudence had by that time certainly suggested. Nevertheless, the government alleged that the false and misleading claims lay in the company’s reliance on testimonials only to prove medical efficacy and the potential for poisoning in the dosage frequency and duration suggested in the company’s literature.

nerveaseco-10-1a     nerveaseco-10-1b


Note also that the legal action was brought in the peculiar way authorized in the 1906 act, not against the company, but rather in the form of a “libel,” or a literal seizure action of the product itself. The company did not contest the government’s charge, as the small proprietary companies like the Nervease Co. often did not. The court would then enter judgment against the product seized by the government and order it destroyed. This form of litigation did limited harm to the company and conveyed limited benefit on the public. The company’s business was disturbed only to the extent that it lost that particular seized shipment of its goods and could otherwise still continue with its established business patterns. The public good was served to the extent that the judgments were published and distributed by the FDA, and read and heeded by medical professionals and the public. Fearing such bad publicity, wiser proprietary companies altered their ingredient formulas or advertising literature after a single judgment entered against them.  A second similar judgment had to be entered against Nervease in 1951.  After that encounter with the law, Nervease Co. disappears from the public record.



Ultimately science itself, not the law, effaced acetanilide as an ingredient in headache and fever reducers. In 1948, doctors finally established that the analgesic and antipyretic properties of acetanilide were contained in paracetamol, the other by-product produced when acetanilide is metabolized in the body. Paracetamol is equivalent to acetaminophen, which by then, could be manufactured cheaply and safely by itself. No longer did any manufacturer have to use acetanilide to produce the relief the antipyretics and analgesics were meant to provide.  Thus, cost efficiency rather than medical safety removed acetanilide from consumer products.  Self-medicators and current buyers of over-the-counter medications should pay heed for the same dangers still lurk in the market place.

©  Malcolm A. Goldstein 2016


Nelson Baker & Company

Nelson, Baker & Co was among a cluster of prominent pharmaceutical companies located in Detroit, MI, although a latecomer on the scene. It was organized only in 1890, but by the Spanish-American War had become a large enough operation to utilize a whole array of cancels, including a profusion of type faces and layouts, on various values of the battleship revenues. Its principals were Edwin H. Nelson and William S. Baker, but its superstar was Dr. Albert Brown Lyon, whose scientific reputation transcended the company.

Edwin Horatio Nelson was born in Brighton, Ontario on June 27, 1856, during a time when his parents briefly resided in Canada. His father was born in Ireland and his mother was a member of the ancient and honored Thayer family of Massachusetts. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to Arkansas where his father owned and operated a plantation before the Civil War. A turn of the (20th) century biographical sketch of Nelson tactfully mentions that the plantation was used by the Union army as a hospital during the Civil War, after which his parents retired to Canada. Nelson was educated in Canada and graduated from the Ontario College of Pharmacy in 1876. His life’s path was set when he moved to Detroit to work for the oldest of the pharmaceutical houses in Detroit, Frederick Stearns & Company (a definite subject for a much longer piece in this series). He worked for Stearns until he became the young and brash President and Chairman of the Board of the new company. By 1907, along with his ownership of N B & Co, he was also a director of the newly formed National Bank of Commerce in Detroit as well as a director of the National Can Co. In a biographical sketch, he characterized himself as a Republican, Episcopal, and a member of prominent business and social organizations in Detroit, including serving as secretary of the Detroit Club in 1907. His son Frank Thayer, born in 1887, won the silver medal in pole vaulting as a member of the US team at the 1912 Olympics. Unlike his father, Frank, as an Olympian, merits his own stub Wikipedia entry and a picture of his medal winning pole vault is displayed there.

The Baker of N B & Co was William S. Baker, born in New York State in 1861. Apparently never significant enough to be profiled in the contemporary biographical puff books of Detroit’s prominent businessmen, his role is mentioned only once in connection with N B & Co, in a description of its operations published in an 1894 trade journal. He is portrayed there as being a canny pharmaceutical salesmen, who had woeked as such for fourteen years ( perhaps also for Stearns) before he became part of N B & Co. He served as N B & Co’s treasurer for ten years or more, although by 1910, he had relocated to Chicago where he spent the next decade. In 1930, he and his wife were living with their daughter’s family in Seattle. As with many, even most, other second names in company titles, he seems to be overshadowed in collective memory as well as in life by the lead name.

Dr. Albert Brown Lyon served as supervising chemist and corporate secretary for N B & Co, from 1897 to his death in 1926, but his reputation today primarily rests on his treatise and compendium on plants published in 1900, apparently still a popular reference guide. Born in 1841 to one of the pioneer missionary families in Hawaii, he moved back and forth between the islands and the mainland before finally settling in Detroit. His Lyon ancestors landed in the New World in 1635, and his mother’s family descended from religious dissenters who accompanied Roger Williams to Rhode Island after he was expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. When Dr. Lyon’s father was buried in Waimea Hawaii in 1886, the King of Hawaii himself sent a Hawaiian flag to use as his winding sheet, because he had heard the old man say: “Fifty years have I lived under your flag … I wish that when I die I may be wrapped in the flag I loved.” Published in 1905, the three volume Lyon family anthology, for which Dr. Lyon acted as chief editor, as well as relating that story, included his father’s favorite hymn translated into Hawaiian.

Dr. Lyon, himself, was educated at Hawaii’s most famous private school, Punahou, and attended college at Oahu College for two years before graduating in 1865 first in his class from Williams College in Massachusetts. He studied medicine at University of Michigan and earned his M.D. in 1868. Immediately following graduation, he became a chemistry professor at Detroit College, where he spent the next twelve years before becoming a consulting chemist to Parke, Davis & Company (another Detroit powerhouse which will be visited again in these columns) in 1881, and then editor of the trade journal Pharmaceutical Era in 1887 (a significant information source for these columns). In 1887, Lyon also published a handbook for analyzing drugs and galenicals (standard preparations of medicines which contain organic substances) which brought him renown as a chemist. In 1888, he returned to Hawaii as the government’s chemist and a professor of various sciences, including physics, as well as logic at Oahu College. When Hawaii became a republic, he served for two weeks as a militiaman in its Citizen’s Guard in 1895, as his biographers ever after proudly noted. In 1900, he was chosen as one of twenty-five chemists named to conduct the decennial revision of the United States Pharmacopoeia. His wife, whom he married in 1878, was born in Wisconsin, but Dr. Lyon could trace her ancestry back through his minister father-in-law (who performed their wedding ceremony) to the Puritans John Alden and Miles Standish. He had two children both of whom matriculated at his medical school alma mater, the University of Michigan. His daughter, after graduating Phi Beta Kappa, ran a missionary school in China and his son became a language teacher at University of Michigan. He belonged to various scientific and professional societies, was a deacon of his church, as he had been in Hawaii, and was a staunch Republican.

N B & Co erected its own laboratory in Detroit in 1893. In 1909, at a time when the original building had been greatly expanded, the company employed more than 400 people, including 70 traveling salesmen. According to a contemporary book trumpeting the important businesses of Detroit, it manufactured a “full and complete line of pharmaceutical preparations and the products of the establishment are recognized by the trade and by the medical profession in general as being of a superior order.” While its profusion of cancels attests that N B & Co was manufacturing lots of different products, there is no single product with which it is most strongly identified. A trade card offered the product Bromo-Laxine for coughs, colds, headaches and neuralgia, but the products themselves suggest everything from Seidlitz Powder (a generic cathartic) to urine testing kits for professionals. The company successfully remained in business, with Frank Nelson, who became an attorney after the 1912 Olympics, becoming Vice-President upon his father’s death in 1932. Although Frank lived on until 1970, in 1950, N B & Co was combined with Penslar Corporation, another small Detroit pharmaceutical company founded in 1910, and both were purchased by the Purepac Corporation, still today a manufacturer of generic drugs.

The Nelson, Baker canceled battleship stamps below are from the former collection of Henry Tolman.  From Mr. Tolman’s organization of the types it is clear that he was still working on coming to final terms with the cancel varieties:
© Malcolm A. Goldstein 2012