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.

The Scott and Bowne Company also introduced a “vitamin pill” concentrate of cod-liver oil in the early 1930s. The man with the fish on his back appeared on the packaging, a reminder that codfish were still the source of the product.

“Emancipation from the Fish?”

As scientists unraveled the role of vitamin D in cod-liver oil, others worked on a way to supply the vitamin without the cod’s liver. Scientists identified ergosterol, a substance extracted from the fungus ergot, as the molecular precursor to vitamin D. When irradiated, ergosterol became several hundred thousand times as potent as cod-liver oil. The compound, marketed in an oil base as Viosterol, was added in minute amounts to fortify other products with vitamin D. One columnist heralded irradiated ergosterol—first announced to the public in 1927—as ushering in “the final triumph of chemistry” and added that vitamin synthesis would mark our “emancipation from the fish that swim in the ocean and the vegetation that grows on the land.”

Emancipation took some time. Cod (and other fish) liver oil continued to be the preferred daily supplement, and Scott’s Emulsion remained on the market as a popular and more palatable alternative to pure oil. Advertising copy in the 1940s and 1950s emphasized Scott’s “natural A&D vitamins and energy-building natural oil factors.” However, the large-scale production of synthetic vitamins and vitamin fortification of other foods gradually undermined our dependence on traditional “natural” sources. Synthetic replacements irreparably broke the age-old connection of the fish, the fisherman, the land of the midnight sun, and the “villainous fluid” they produced.

But in the 1970s Danish doctor Jorn Dyerburg connected diets based on cold-water oily fish to a low incidence of coronary disease among the Greenland Inuit. His work led to further studies on the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids and so paved the way for the innumerable fish-oil supplements seen on the market today. The new research, still ongoing, strongly suggests that there is more to the therapeutic value of cod-liver oil than its vitamins.

Scott’s Emulsion weathered the changes in medical knowledge, therapeutic practice, and cultural preference. Still produced today in much the same formula, the emulsion remains rich in vitamins A and D, calcium, phosphorus, and nowomega-3 fatty acids. Its therapeutic claims echo a long tradition of use: promoting healthy growth, building resistance to disease, and guarding against the ravages of age. Although the emulsion is no longer widely used in the United States where the vitamin pill mostly supplanted it, it remains popular in Asia and Central and South America, markets pioneered by Alfred Scott in the late 19th century. The man with the fish on his back still appears on every package, a testament to a traditional remedy that continues to inform and adapt in an era of scientific medicine.

Diane Wendt is an associate curator in the Division of Medicine and Science at the National Museum of American History of the Smithsonian Institution.