For me, growing up in the 1980s, asthma was a convenient way of getting out of P.E. I can imagine, however, how disabling the condition must have been before modern drugs like salbutamol. Anything that claimed to relieve asthma would have been worth trying – but Dr Tucker’s remedy carried with it the danger of addiction.
This advert for Tucker’s Asthma Specific is fairly unassuming compared with the big pictorial ads in fashion at the time, but it was well-positioned on the front page of London’s Pall Mall Gazette. The product originated in Mount Gilead, Ohio, where Dr Nathan Tucker started The Asthma Specific Company in 1889. (The title ‘Dr’ was genuine.)
Early 20th-century analyses had varying results, but most agreed that the Specific contained cocaine and atropine. While the company emphasised that the amount of cocaine in each inhalation was tiny, the Journal of the American Medical Association didn’t approve:
When one considers the prevalence of the cocain habit and demoralizing and brutalizing effect that this habit has on its victims, the viciousness of the indiscriminate sale of a preparation of this sort becomes evident.
They were particularly concerned about the method of taking the medicine – it was vaporised and inhaled into the nose:
It is only necessary to call attention to those cocain habitués, known as “coke-sniffers” to realise the enormous harm that can be done by the taking of cocain in this way.
An inhaler plus an initial supply of the liquid cost $12.50 in the US and 3 guineas in Britain and you can see Nathan Tucker demonstrating the inhaler below. The company operated by mail order – punters had to fill in a questionnaire and would receive a diagnosis and prescription by post. This was a marginally better bet for American patients than British ones – at least Nathan Tucker and his nephew William Briscoe Robinson were qualified doctors. In the UK, the business was run by Tucker’s brother, Augustus Quackenbush Tucker (no, seriously!) who had no medical qualifications and later claimed he didn’t even know what was in the medicine.
There were thousands of happy customers, but for some the outcome wasn’t much fun.
In 1908 the Specific was implicated in the death of a British patient – 36-year-old Margaret Weston from Slough. She had been using the inhaler for two years and the doctor who attended just before her death noted symptoms of cocaine poisoning. The American Medical Association, in Nostrums and Quackery, implied that the Specific killed her, but in their quack-busting enthusiasm, didn’t mention that the inquest found she had also had a cocaine injection for dental work. At about the same time, Augustus Tucker was fined £5 plus £5 5s costs for selling the preparation without marking it ‘Poison’, and for not including an address on the packaging.
Nathan Tucker retired in 1910 and William Robinson took over the business, but got into trouble five years later when a court ruled that under the Harrison Narcotic Act, it was illegal for the company to prescribe its product by mail. Robinson somehow managed to get round this and continued the mail-order system, with his son Dr Gerard Briscoe Robinson later joining him. Tucker’s Asthma Specific was around until 1959, when G B Robinson died in a plane crash and the company’s assets were sold off.