The makers of a Georgian universal remedy known as Dr Webster’s Diet Drink or Cerevisia Anglicana (English Beer) were clearly on to a good thing when they inherited the recipe.
This ‘medicine’ had been reportedly formulated in 1742 by a certain Joshua Webster (d. 1801), who claimed to have cured Benjamin Franklin of a scorbutic complaint with his diet drink and also ascribed his own longevity to occasional doses of his secret concoction. Webster bequeathed the recipe to his wholesaler, a Southwark wine and spirit merchant with the splendidly Dickensian name of Samuel Slee.
This is an early advertisement intended for display in the shop windows of the various outlets where Webster’s was sold. Advertising and the use of testimonials were crucial to sales, as the firm’s publications make clear.
The drink was promoted as a nonspecific remedy of vegetable extraction. In reality, the active ingredients comprised quicksilver and sublimate of mercury, but this did not prevent the proprietors from warning customers against “mercurial quacks”. In the cut-throat market for health truth was the first casualty.
The recipe was a closely guarded secret – no clue was given as to the particular ingredients, vegetable or otherwise, on the mysterious “octogon square shaped red and green bottles” in which the drink was sold, although females were warned to avoid it “at certain times”.
Webster’s Diet Drink was an established and apparently perfectly respectable patent medicine available from well-known retail chemists like Francis Newbery and Sons and John Sangar and Sons in the later 19th century. Who knows, it might have done some people the world of good. Certainly, as the business began to peter out at the end of the 19th century there were complaints from retailers and individual consumers that they were not receiving their supplies.
The surviving records of the business are held in the Wellcome Library (MSS. 7164-7201), where they are available for study.
Author: Dr Richard Aspin is head of Research and Scholarship at the Wellcome Library.