In 1843, James Cook Ayer mixed up a cherry cough medicine in a Lowell, Mass., apothecary while his boss was on vacation in Europe.
The cough medicine, known as ‘Cherry pectoral,’ marked Ayer’s first step on the road to a fortune. It was followed by a strong laxative called Cathartic Pills, a blood medicine called Sarsaparilla that was supposed to cure syphilis, a cure for malaria called Ague Cure, and a hair restorer called Hair Vigor.
James Cook Ayer would become the most successful patent medicine manufacturer of his age. He accumulated one of the great fortunes of the era, an estimated $20 million.
He was born May 5, 1818 in Groton, Conn. His father died when he was seven, and at 13 he was sent to live with his uncle, a manufacturer who later became a mayor of the new city of Lowell, Mass. He attended public schools in Lowell; one of his classmates was Benjamin Butler. At 19 he became an apprentice to an apothecary, Jacob Robbins. He also studied medicine with a local doctor, Samuel Dana, eventually graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a medical degree in 1860.
Ayer was more interested in selling medicines than in practicing medicine. When he was 22, he bought the apothecary shop for $2,486.61 with money borrowed from his uncle. He paid him back in three years.
Physicians happily prescribed Ayer’s medicines, but the real secret to his success was advertising. He spent $140,000 a year on advertisements that promoted the benefits of his medicines with charming, whimsical illustrations. He distributed millions of free copies of an almanac that hawked his cures.
Ayer advertised cherry pectoral as a cure for ‘coughs, colds, asthma, croup, laryngitis, bronchitis, whooping cough and consumption.’ His most popular product, sarsaparilla, was ‘a real blessing that purifies the blood, stimulates the vital functions, restores and preserves health, and infuses new life and vigor throughout the whole system. He recommended it for jaundice, dyspepsia, pimples, boils, ringworm, female weaknesses and ‘lassitude and debility peculiar to the Spring.’
Ayer built a state-of-the-art factory in Lowell to produce vast quantities of medicines that made him a fortune. He employed 150 people. In one year the factory processed 325,000 pounds of drugs, 220,000 gallons of spirits and 400,000 pounds of sugar. He sold his products around the world, and the factory continued to produce drugs until the 1940s.
In 1855, Ayer brought his brother Frederick into the business. With the profit from their patent medicine business they invested in textile mills and other ventures.
Some doctors criticized Ayer’s medicines, partly because they cut into their business, and partly because Ayer advertised so heavily – something they though unseemly.
He was accused of using misleading advertising to sell quack medicines and miracle cures. His defenders say Ayer’s claims were well within the bounds of medical knowledge in the 19th century.
Cherry pectoral contained three grams of morphine – but that was a lot less than doctors were prescribing at the time.
Some of Ayer’s products contained small amounts of alcohol to preserve the plant material that comprised his medicines.
But certainly some of his products did not live up to their billing.
But Some Medicines Did Work
Sarsaparilla didn’t work. Hair Vigor didn’t work. But Ague Cure contained bark from the cinchona tree – which later became known as quinine and was very effective in fighting malaria.
Cherry pectoral did not cure lung ailments, as advertised, but it did treat the symptoms of a cold, which helps patients improve.
In 1874, Ayer managed to win the Republican nomination for Congress from the district representing Lowell. He lost, because of his ‘cold manner.’ According to his obituary, opposition to his candidacy was so strong he became unhinged. He grew so violent he ended up in an insane asylum in New Jersey for months.
James Cook Ayer died at the age of 60 on July 3, 1878 in Winchendon, Mass.
The town of Ayer, Mass., was named after him.
This story was updated in 2022.