If you have a fireplace and have ever had to clean it out, you are familiar with creosote. As well, if you’ve ever taken a walk on the tracks, and noted the sticky black coating on the railroad ties, you’ve discovered creosote. It is a by-product of the burning of wood or coal, which leaves behind a stick black tar that can be further distilled to creosote. Railroad ties, wooden utility poles, and wood used for marine docks have been traditionally coated with coal-tar creosote. It is an excellent preservative, both insecticide and antimicrobial, and makes such wood last a long, long time. It can also be quite toxic if you are exposed to it in large quantities. Wood-tar creosote was used as a meat preservative.
However, since it is such a great preservative, it is no wonder that quack-medicine once saw it as an effective treatment for the symptoms of cold or flu. It was used as an expectorant and an antiseptic. It was also used as an anesthetic and even a laxative.
Medicines made from creosote were available over-the-counter for home use and once such medicine was Karswood Creosote, introduced around 1895. When it came out it was advertised as
A new Sweetwood Creosote, for inhaling from a pocket handkerchief. If you suffer from Cold in the Head try one bottle: It will relieve you at once. A perfect cure for Cough, Bronchitis, Asthma, Whooping Cough, Croups, Nasal Catarrh [stuffy nose], Weak Lungs, and Sore Throat. Prevents the spreading of infectious diseases if a few drops be sprinkled on the pillow at night, so that it can be inhaled during sleep… – E.G. Hughes, Chemist, Victoria St., Manchester.
The advertisement for Karswood Creosote, above, is interesting for its use of an anatomical diagram and its “explanation,” presumably for how the medicine works. Note that this non-explanation is similar to the type of pseudoscience you will find today. That is, it has nothing to do with whether or not inhaled creosote could treat anything. The numbers of the explanatory text correspond to the numbers in the diagram.
The Pseudoscience Explanation
The dotted lines show the show the direction taken by the air during breathing.
1. The Nasal Cavity, always attacked by the Microbes of Influenza, Catarrh, Cold in the had, etc.
2. Passage from the Nose to the Mouth.
3. The Throat, which becomes sore from Colds, Fevers, etc.
4. The Gullet, or Passages from the Mouth to the Stomach.
5. The Wind Pipe, or Passages to the Lungs.
6. Bronchial Tubes, the seat of Bronchitis and Asthma.
7. The lower lobes of the Lungs which become congested with Pneumonia.
8. The Lungs, which are the seat of Consumption, etc.
As you can see, the explanation is simply that, “we get colds and we get the flu.” The claims below the diagram, do not stop at claiming a cure for colds, flu, or bronchitis, but also claim a cure for Whooping Cough, Hay Fever, Croup, and Asthma. It also claims to be a cure for Incipient Consumption.
Consumption means tuberculosis and incipient refers to its being in the beginning stages. Tuberculosis infections were at their peak in the 1800’s, especially in Europe, where it caused about 25% of all deaths. There were many claims of cures for this deadly scourge, including mercury, which probably makes inhaling creosote seem quite benign.