Ironed Out

By: Vanessa Burrows, Ph.D.

During the early part of the 20th century, the growing scientific knowledge that certain diseases were caused by vitamin and mineral deficiencies sparked public interest in products that touted these substances. But the public had little understanding of this emerging health care field and, as a result, was often easy prey for unscrupulous marketers who used phony claims that their products had therapeutic value.

Vanessa BurrowsOne such charlatan was a man named E. Virgil Neal, whose past schemes included palm-reading and hypnotism performed under the name Xenophon LaMotte Sage; a mail-order health and self-improvement program, which earned him a conviction for mail fraud; and a French cosmetics company that marketed false hair regenerators and bust enhancers.

Operating at the dawn of the modern advertising age, Neal employed a sophisticated and misleading marketing campaign to sell Nuxated Iron pills, which included iron and nux vomica, a derivative of the strychnine tree, which is highly toxic to humans and other animals. Beginning in 1917, Neal’s advertisements used celebrity endorsements that touted the product’s invigorating and strength-building qualities, promising to alleviate “that tired feeling.” However, the pills contained so little iron that their health impact was questionable, and so much strychnine that, in at least one case, they caused the fatal poisoning of a young boy.

Neal’s fraudulence was exposed by the American Medical Association and journalists in the early 1920s, but FDA was unable to prosecute him because the misbranding provisions of the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act did not outlaw misleading promotional material of the type that Neal distributed. Neal’s product actually contained some iron, albeit negligible amounts, and only made therapeutic claims in promotional materials. It wasn’t until 1944, after the passage of the 1938 Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, when FDA was able to take action against the product on new types of misbranding grounds, which forbid, among other things, misrepresenting the quantity of ingredients contained in the product.

Today, FDA continues to play a critical role in protecting consumers from fraudulent, adulterated, and misbranded products like Nuxated Iron.

We hope you enjoy your visit to the History Vault.

Vanessa Burrows, Ph.D., is an FDA Historian