Wednesday, 5 November 2014

The pills that cured all ills; James Morison the Hygeist (1770-1840), Kensal Green Cemetery


“One of the most remarkable mausoleums....... in Kensal Green is the tomb of James Morison the Hygeist; this the originator of the famed Morison's Pills medicine that was recommended with an assurance and hardihood that commanded success and riches. If the first dose failed the second was to be an increased quantum and the third a farther increase, and so on adding to the until the illness ceased - and cease it infallibly would one way or the other. I forgot how many men Mr Morison constantly employed in the manufacture of these pills;  they were, or are, in demand by this enlightened people by wagon loads These things always find their way across the Atlantic. In England a quack never fails unless he is untrue to himself, that is, if he be not sufficiently outrageous in his professions; let him promise and persevere in promising the impossible - let him screw his courage to that point and he’ll not fail; the yearly sum in advertisements alone by some of those venders of nostrums (the value of which they assert, and truly, is unknown and incredible) must be immense.
It seemed to me very bad policy to erect a monument at all to Mr Morison especially in this open manner; it should have been left to the public to believe, as they will believe anything, that his pills would ensure him an age running pretty considerably into another century.”
Henry Wood – ‘Change for the American Notes in Letters from London to New York by an American Lady.’ (1843)




Now almost completely forgotten James Morison was once a household name thanks to his Universal Vegetable Pills Nº1 and Nº2. The son of a Scottish laird from Bognie in Aberdeenshire, Morison studied at the University of Aberdeen and then trained for a commercial career at Hanau in Germany. At the end of his studies he lived and worked in Riga and then moved to the West Indies as a wine and spirit merchant. The tropics did not agree with him and after making a fortune he moved to Bordeaux where he met and married Anne Victoire, a Baron’s daughter from Alsace-Lorraine, at the relatively late age of forty. The couple had 5 children, 3 sons and 2 daughters. He seems to have gradually whittled away at his West Indian fortune and eventually had to return to Scotland. When he came to write ‘A Biographical Sketch of James Morison, the Hygeist, with the reasons that led him to the discovery of The Hygeian System of Medicine and The “Vegetable Universal Medicines”’ his successful mercantile career and successful family life was somewhat glossed over in favour of a self portrait which concentrated on “35 years of inexpressible suffering under the Medical Faculty.” At the age of 51 Morison summarised his life as “year after year struggling with disease, my speedy dissolution was often looked for, - my meridian of life passed - the powers and energy of life fast subsiding - my faculties impairing and sight becoming dim. I was fast descending to the grave….” and all because of constipation. For Morison all of life’s ills could be traced back to costiveness and the resultant poisoning of the blood that it caused.

In Aberdeen Morison experimented with various vegetable and chemical extracts and produced a pill which cured him of his chronic constipation. In 1825 be began to market his Universal Vegetable Pills in England. In 1828 he went into business with Thomas Moat a businessman from Devon and the two opened a grandiose building in the Euston Road to house The British College of Health, an organisation which dedicated itself to spreading the Hygeist philosophy and selling Morison’s Nº1 and Nº 2 pills. Morison detested the medical establishment and they loathed him in return. His pills were sold through a network of agents who were generally tobacconists, grocers and stationers rather than chemists or druggists. They were hugely successful – sales are estimated to have been worth a colossal £100,000 a year in the early 1830’s.


The Hygeists view of the meical profession; three learned medical men portrayed as the witches from Macbeth with Death waiting at the door
However things soon started to go wrong. In July 1834 Joseph Webb, proprietor of the London Coffeehouse in York and agent for Morison’s Vegetable Pills was indicted at York assizes for the manslaughter of a linen drapers  apprentice, Richard Richardson. The deceased had fallen ill on a Tuesday and been treated by Webb with large quantities of Morison’s Pill’s. By Saturday afternoon he was dead. A doctor had been called on the Saturday morning and he testified that in his opinion the deceased had died of small pox but that death had been accelerated by the use of Morison’s pills. No one quite knew what to make of a manslaughter case where the victim would have died anyway – after much legal argument the perplexed jury brought in a verdict of guilty against Webb but with a recommendation of mercy. 
This was followed in April 1836 by a case heard at the Old Bailey. Robert Salmon of Farringdon Street, London, tobacconist and agent for Morison’s Pills, was found guilty for the manslaughter of John Mackenzie, master mariner of Ratcliffe who had taken 75 Morison Pills in the 24 hours before he died.  And then a few months later in August of the same year an inquest was held in Hull into the death of Mary Rebecca Russell of Collier Street. She was “not an ailing woman” according to her husband though she did suffer occasionally from the ‘windy dropsy’.  It was a result of stomach pains and fever brought on by gravel and windy dropsy that she had taken 6 of Morison’s Nº 2 pills the previous week. As there was no improvement her husband sent for the local Morison agent, a Mr Thomas La Mott, who prescribed six Nº 1 pills to be followed that night by eight Nº 2’s As there was no improvement in the following days La Mott prescribed escalating quantities of pills until Mrs Russell was taking 80 pills a day. After just over a week on this regimen the concerned husband called a local surgeon who bled her, applied mustard plasters to her legs, shaved her head and smeared “stimulating lineament on the shaven part” and finally applied a blister. All to no avail; Mrs Russell died.  The attending surgeon and the surgeon who carried out the autopsy on Mrs Russell both concurred that death had been caused by the overdosing of Morison’s Pills and the jury brought in a verdict of manslaughter against Thomas La Mott.
"The Singular Effects of the Universal Vegetable Pill."
A greengrocer finds himself in an interesting condition
after a large dose of Morison's Pills. A contemporary satire. 
These much publicised cases rocked the public’s confidence in Morison’s Pills but Morison fought back against his critics taking out adverts in the papers to defend his agents, and paying their fines when they were convicted. In February 1837 he sued the editor and proprietor of the Weekly Despatch newspaper for libel after they alleged that the famous Vegetable Pills were noxious and poisonous and claimed that after the trial of Robert Salmon sales of the pills had plummeted to the point that Morison could no longer carry on his business and that the workmen at the pill factory had been forced to take strike action in order to receive their wages. They also claimed that Morison had been forced to flee the country. It was true that the Hygeist had moved to Paris in 1834 taking with him his second wife Clarinda and their young son and leaving his adult sons from his first marriage to look after the business. At a time when a murder trial could still be despatched in an afternoon the libel trial took three whole days during which time the court was packed with spectators. Morison’s barrister, Mr Kelly, opened his case by telling the jury that his clients “cared not what attacks were made upon, or misrepresentations were advanced relative to their medicines; but they complained of the insinuation ….. that they were in a state of insolvency—on that part, at all events, the verdict must be for the plaintiffs.”
Acting for the defendants Mr Serjeant Wilde spoke of his surprise “his learned friend had not called some witnesses to show the efficacy the pills.” According to newspaper reports the “learned Serjeant then proceeded to state that several deaths had taken place through the administration of these pills. Could the jury believe that any medicine could made that would be equally good for the infant in arms and for the decrepitude of age? The libel called the plaintiffs impudent scamps, and could any person who made such statements be otherwise described? They advised the pills to be given to the child at the mother's breast, and if the poor infant became worse, they said—‘You know the reason; you have not given a sufficient quantity of pills,’ and they forced the pills down the throats of their victims until death relieved them from their sufferings. How did the plaintiffs describe their medicine? They said it was good for the small-pox, rupture, piles, the cholera, dropsy, and every other disorder which the human frame was subject.” Witnesses were called from the Webb and Salmon trials to retell their stories. Mr Kelly countered by producing various obscure surgeons who testified to being users of Morison’s Vegetable Pills and who swore to the efficacy of the medicine.  The court took a particular interest in the purgative effects of the pills and witnesses were called on to give accounts of their bowel movements much to the hilarity of the crowded and boisterous public gallery. Kelly even managed to find one witness, a Mr Pearce, who told the court that he calculated that he had taken as many as 18,000 Morison’s Nº 1’s and Nº 2’s in the previous two years with no ill effects whatsoever. The Chief Justice enquired how much 18,000 pills had cost him and the witness responded about “£22…..and he thought them well worth the money.” The jury were not convinced. They retired at 6.30pm and at 8.15 returned to give their verdict: they found for the defendant on the first part of the libel “as to the deleterious nature of the pills,” and for the plaintiff “for the imputation of insolvency.” They awarded Morison £200 damages.

"Massa Doctor, you tink I get more wite for taking you pills?" 
"Decidedly Sir! about two thousand boxes will without doubt render you as white as a lily." 
Another contemporary satire.
Morison died at his home in Paris, 3 rue des Pyramides, on 3 May 1840. His body was brought back to England to be interred in his splendid mausoleum in Kensal Green. If there was ever any inscription on the mausoleum it has been either effaced or removed and there is nothing to indicate who lies inside. The Universal Vegetable Pill continued to sell strongly – in the decade after Morison’s death 828 million pills were sold and a further 1.5 million given away to the poor. The international reach of the business is shown by pill advertisements being produced in Chinese and Arabic as well as most European languages. In 1925 when the company celebrated its centenary it was still a family firm being run by a descendant of Morison’s.