The Man with a Fish on His Back: Science, Romance, and Repugnance in the Selling of Cod-Liver Oil

Early cod-liver advertisement

One of the earliest images of the man with a fish on his back appeared around 1884 on advertising trade cards. Image courtesy of the National Museum of American History Collections, Smithsonian Institution.

One of the earliest images of the man with a fish on his back appeared around 1884 on advertising trade cards. Image courtesy of the National Museum of American History Collections, Smithsonian Institution.Neither Scott nor Bowne lived to see the advent of the age of vitamins, which became the new “wonder drugs” and a boon to the marketers of cod-liver oil. The two died in 1908 and 1910, respectively, as wealthy men. Their emulsion survived them; advertisements in the 1920s touted the health-promoting properties of the vitamins—proof that modern science had vindicated an old remedy.

With the discovery of vitamins the medical world transformed cod-liver oil from a remedy largely dismissed as old-fashioned to an indispensable part of every child’s diet. Health professionals urged mothers to dose their children daily and provided much advice on how to get babies to swallow the nasty stuff. “Guile Baby into Regarding Cod Liver Oil as a Treat” headlined one newspaper health column, which continued, “It remains for the mother to sternly squelch any disposition to be ‘sniffy’ about cod liver oil. She must assume that bright, alert expression which is so natural to her when she offers the baby something simply marvelous.” Pamphlets on infant care issued by the U.S. Children’s Bureau demonstrated the proper method of administering the oil: a “forced feeding” that included squeezing the baby’s cheeks together to prevent it from spitting out the oil.

New research also gave renewed credence to the idea of active principles separable from the bulk of the nasty oil. In 1927 Casimir Funk and Harry Dubin, working for H. A. Metz Laboratories, patented a process for extracting vitamins A and D from the oil. Their patent application begins, “This invention relates to the treatment of cod liver, cod liver oil, or its derivatives for the purpose of obtaining therefrom a highly concentrated substance rich in the antixerophthalmic and antirachitic vitamines [A and D], to which, as has been definitely established, cod liver oil owes its therapeutic action.”

Oscodal Tablets, the resulting “vitamin pills” marketed by Metz, were sugar coated, making them all the more palatable. In the initial advertising campaign the Metz Company sent leaflets and literature to “all the physicians in the United States,” and salesmen personally visited thousands. Metz distributed free samples with the advice that doctors try it on “one of those ‘fussy’ patients who cannot take cod liver oil but still need it.”