This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE
On any given day in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Texans could find in their local papers advertisements for all kinds of concoctions promising to cure every ailment under the Lone Star sun.
But none promised more than “Microbe Killer,” a pseudo-scientific solution its quack creator claimed could do everything except raise the dead.
William Radam arrived in Austin from his native Austria not long after the Civil War. On 30 acres of land within sight of the state capitol, the self-taught horticulturalist opened a nursery where he sold the plants he raised himself.
Life was good until the mid-1880’s, when Radam came down with malaria. The doctors he consulted could do little more than prescribe quinine, which proved less effective with each passing day.
To make matters and his condition worse, Radam started to suffer from rheumatism and severe leg pain. Then, in the midst of his misery, he lost two of his young children.
With what little confidence he had in the medical profession shattered by the twin tragedies, Radam resolved to find the cure for what ailed him. A vague understanding of the germ theory of disease developed by Louis Pasteur and others led the gardener to the belief that microbes (bacteria, fungi and viruses) were waging war on his body.
Trying to cloak his “discovery” in scientific respectability, Radam later wrote, “The Microbe Killer cannot be compared with ordinary drugs. It does not contain any of them. It is pure water, permeated with gases which are essential to the nourishment of the system, and in which micro-organisms cannot live and propagate, or fermentation exist.”
Hesitantly at first, Radam took a sip of the homemade brew. When it did not make him retch, he downed a big glass of the foul-tasting stuff. After drinking as much as a gallon a day for six months, he felt as fit as a fiddle and credited Microbe Killer for his good health.
Next Radam needed to test his elixir on other subjects without running the risk of serious legal consequences. He chose his black nursery workers, who shared free samples with sick friends and relatives.
A number of these human guinea pigs reported rapid improvement from a variety of chronic conditions including tuberculosis and breast tumors. Word spread so quickly of the wonder tonic that the gardener soon was too busy satisfying the mushrooming demand to tend to his nursery.
Radam found a ready and virtually inexhaustible market for Microbe Killer. Dating back to the days of the Republic, Texans had put their trust not in the medical profession but in “patent medicines” peddled by smooth-talking hucksters. With the scarcity of trained doctors in rural areas, the cheap cure-alls often were the only option.
In September 1886, Radam obtained a carefully worded patent for his Microbe Killer as a food preservative rather than a treatment for disease. The next month, he manned a booth at the State Fair in Dallas and went home with a bushel basket of orders.
By January 1887, production had kicked into high gear with Radam selling Microbe Killer in gallon, salt-glazed jugs. Within months, each container featured the eye-catching trademark of a young man in a business suit defeating Death in hand-to-hand combat.
Radam made enough money in the first two years to construct an office building on the site of his abandoned nursery that still stands today down the street from the capitol. He left Austin for good in 1890 moving to New York City, where he opened his new company headquarters and bought a mansion with a view of Central Park.
By that time, no fewer than 17 factories were turning out mass quantities of Microbe Killer in three strengths. To his now famous trademark, Radam added the baseless boast “Cures All Diseases.”
With government oversight of patent medicine a generation in the future and the reluctance of most newspapers to print an unkind word about a big advertiser, it fell to a private physician named Eccles to expose Radam as “a misguided crank…out-quacking the worst quacks of this or any other age.”
In a small-circulation magazine read only by fellow doctors and pharmacists, Eccles cited an analysis by Department of Agriculture chemists that revealed Microbe Killer was 99.381 percent water with trace amounts of hydrochloric acid and sulphuric acid. Given the cost of the ingredients, the former gardener was reaping a 6,000 percent profit.
Radam would have been better off had he simply ignored Dr. Eccles, but his ego would not allow that. He insisted upon suing his critic for libel but in two courtroom battles succeeded in only exposing himself as a pompous ignoramus.
However, in Radam’s version of the suit, published in paid ads throughout the country, he put his critic in his place and established Microbe Killer once and for all as a boon to mankind. And the rich old crackpot went to his grave in 1902 believing that pipe dream was the gospel truth.