Yesterday, when I was working dow in Dow’s I found an old bottle of a patent medicine called Phosferrin in a cupboard


and from the label you can see that it was a complete cure all. As well as the bottle I found a scruffy little cardboard box of Phosferrin pills


remarkably the paper seal on the packet was still intact so I’m presuming the the remains of pills are still inside.

Even though the packages say Forbes Phosferrin, both the bottle and packet were produced by Martin and Pleasance who are still with us as a supplier of homeopathic medicines.

Around the time of the first world war Phosferrin was touted mainly as a nerve tonic to steady the nerves, with various endorsements from men serving at the front as to how it helped them cope with the stress of being in the trenches, but before and after the first world war it was advertised as a stress reliever, with now forgotten silent movie actresses such as Malvina Longfellow endorsing it as a way to cope with the stress of filming.

Sometimes spelt Phosferrin, other times Phosferrine, it was manufactured and sold by various patent medicine manufacturers. 

In 1911 the BMJ published a study which suggested that it was pasically a mixture of water, phosphoric acid and alcohol, with a touch of quinine and a dash of sulphuric acid for added zing.

Probably harmless unless consumed to excess, it would have been totally useless as something to aid depression or relieve stress, except as a placebo.

Phosferrin seems to have dropped out of use in the mid 1920’s, and I originally thought it to be an early twentieth century phenomenon.

Not a bit of it – while researching this post I found this advert from 1878

phosferrin evening times 1878

from the Evening Times in Wellington NZ.

Interesting – and also interesting that homeopathic medicines were being promoted so early in New Zealand.

In fact, using querypic to search for phosferrine we can see it was mentioned in Australian newspapers until the 1950’s, phosferrin was really popular in New Zealand in the in early 1880’s

chart (11)

Why the interest?

Well it looks as if Phosferrin was promoted as refreshing drink as well

Screenshot 2021-09-24 151902

Which is not quite as weird as it sounds – after all Coca Cola started out was a patent medicine …

[update 24/09/2021]

Just for fun, I did a search for Phosferin on Welsh Papers online as a proxy for advertising in newspapers in the UK.

Their corpus only goes as far as 1919 and I expected to find examples of advertising similar to that which I’d found in Australia and New Zealand.

Initially I drew a blank, but searching for the string Phosfer* brought up plenty of examples, mostly the same as those used in Australia and New Zealand, including endorsements from troops on the Western Front.

(I’m guessing that Welsh Papers Online’s OCR isn’t quite as robust either Trove’s or Papers Past NZ’s and hence struggled with recognising Phosferrin.)

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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