William Radam’s Microbe Killer – 1887
Today we are going to throwback to the year 1887 with William Radam’s Microbe Killer. The story about the Microbe Killer begins in Texas during the late 1800’s where there was a lot of what became known as “medical quackery” going on. The invention of the microscope in the 1600’s started a whole new field of scientific research called microbiology; the study of microbes. Microbes are living organism too small to see without a microscope and classified as bacteria, fungus and/or viruses. Microbes are known as the oldest living organisms on earth and have existed since hundreds of millions of years before the dinosaurs. It is estimated that over 10 million different species of bacteria live on our planet, making up the bulk of our living material. Microbes feed off the oceans, the earth and even human beings! In the 19th and 20th centuries, microbes were notorious for causing diseases such as Bronchitis, Tuberculosis, Meningitis and the common cold. Today, microbes have been fully understood by scientists as being an essential part of our ecosystem and not solely known for causing illness. They produce oxygen we need to live, break down our waste and decompose dead organisms.
Microbes, and the little information available on them in the 19th century, made it possible for William Radam to pull off one of the biggest medical hoaxes of all time. In Texas in the 1800’s entrepreneurs were taking advantage of the ignorance of the population commonly targeting the scientifically illiterate. Patents for chemical products did not begin in the United States until 1925 and mysterious, scientifically-unproven cures were common in the medical field. William Radam who was from Prussia had moved to Austin, Texas as a young man. He owned a nursery and gardening store for 20 years, until he became seriously ill in 1885. He used his skills as a botanist to develop a cure for his illness. Using plant based ingredients prepared in a special tank and then infusing this into water he created a “medicine” he called the “Microbe Killer” and claimed that it killed all microbes in your blood. As microbes were known to cause diseases, logic would suggest that killing all of them in your blood would cure you. He marketed and sold the Microbe Killer in gallon jugs for $3.00 and bottles for $1.00. The jugs were made of stoneware while the bottles, made of brown glass, and had an interesting engraving on them that today’s bottle collector’s still desire. The engraving shows a man attempting to swing a club at a skeleton with the words “Microbe Killer” on the club. Factories to make the Microbe Killer were built and opened, not only in the United States but also in England and Australia. Radam had thousands of testimonies from people citing the benefits of the Microbe Killer and he became very wealthy from the sales of his product until he death in 1902 of a heart condition. It would not be until 1913 that William Radam’s secret was revealed. The Microbe Killer was analyzed by the food and drug administration and it was determined that each bottle of Microbe Killer was nothing more than plain water with just the slightest bit of Sulfuric Acid added, almost undetectable. Previous statements concerning the Microbe Killer were deemed fraudulent and US marshals seized the remaining stock of the Microbe Killer.
This interesting tale of medical quackery had made the Microbe Killer Jugs and Bottles highly collectible. At The PAST Antiques Marketplace we have William Radam’s stoneware gallon jug No. 1 Microbe Killer (empty of course) available for purchase! To see this interesting piece, and learn more about it, take a trip to The PAST Antiques on Route 85 in Montville, Connecticut.