These little amber bottles, discovered in the mudbanks of the Wallamba River, were once found in most Australian households particularly from the late 1890s to 1940s. The pills claimed to purify the blood and cure rheumatism, indigestion, constipation, kidney and liver disorders, headaches, pimples, boils and even “female ailments”.1 In fact, one advertisement claimed that the pills could slow the ageing of women (which seemed to happen after marriage) by flushing the body with rich red blood that gave the “skin a beautiful and clear appearance”!2
The elixir was first manufactured in America in the 1850s by father and son Edwin and William Comstock who had a patent medicine business in New York. There was never a real Dr Morse but a cleverly crafted story around a doctor who had discovered the ingredients while living with Native Americans. The once secret ingredients were required by law to be revealed in the 1930s and were aloe, mandrake, gamboge, jalap and cayenne pepper.3
The pills gained particular popularity in Australia during the 1919 Influenza Pandemic. In February alone more than a ton of pills was sold with one business selling 5000 bottles across the counter.4 The popularity of the product, and other patent medicines, declined in the 1940s as science began to play a greater role in medicine.5
Before billboards lined our roads, advertisements were painted on sides of buildings, sheds and fences. An advertisement for Dr Morse’s Indian Root Pills was once painted on the roof of a shed (now converted into a house) at Glenthorne just on entering the L.O. Martin Bridge. It was still visible in the 1950s and early 60s.6
Author: Ian Gorton and Janine Roberts
1 A scan of newspaper advertisements on National Library of Australia’s Trove. Evening News, 12 August 1898, 3.
2 Sunday Times, 14 February 1909, Advertising, 7.
3 Robert B Shaw, History of the Comstock Patent Medicine Business and Dr Morse’s Indian Root Pills. Smithsonian Institution Press: City of Washington, 1972.
4 The Mercury, 25 March 1919, 2.
5 Museums Victoria Collections, https://collections.museumsvictoria.com.au/items/1769520
6 Oral histories collected by Ian Gorton.