Monday March 24 2008
[This is much longer than the Guardian version]
Making a show for radio 4 on the history of diet fads [tonight Monday 24th at 8pm listen again here], I began to wonder what our modern gurus will come out with, when the cheques are all cashed, and the companies fold. Dudley J Le Blanc was a Louisiana senator in the 1940s, and the greatest quack ever to live. After a doctor cured his gout with a secret potion, Dudley stole a bottle, and copied the ingredients to make his own: Hadacol. “I had’da call it something”, he would later explain, once he had nothing to lose.
Hadacol was made from B vitamins and alcohol in barrels behind le Blanc’s barn, by farmers’ daughters who stirred it with boat oars. It cured everything, cost $100 a year for the recommended dose, and to Dudley’s open amazement, it sold in millions. “They came in to buy Hadacol,” said one pharmacist, “when they didn’t have money to buy food. They had holes in their shoes and they paid $3.50 for a bottle of Hadacol.”
Le Blanc made no medicinal claims, but pushed customer testimonials to an eager media. He appointed a medical director who had been convicted in California of practising medicine with no license and, indeed, no medical degree. A diabetic patient almost died when she gave up insulin to treat herself with Hadacol. Nobody cared. “It’s a craze. It’s a culture. It’s a political movement,” said Newsweek.
In 1949, le Blanc had a huge tax bill coming, with no hope of paying it off. Most men would have collapsed: instead, he spent enough on advertising, in a single campaign, using money he didn’t have, to write off the entire bill.His adverts featured a man climbing from a swamp over huge boulders labelled “fatigue”, “aches and pains”, “nervousness”, “stomach bloat”. Beneath each word, in tiny letters, you could just read: “When due to lack of Vitamins B1, B2, Niacin and Iron.”
The risk paid off. By 1950 sales were over $20 million, with an advertising spend of a million dollars a month, in 700 daily papers and 528 radio stations. He took a travelling medicine show of 130 vehicles on a tour of 3,800 miles through the South. Entry was paid in Hadacol bottle tops, and the shows starred Groucho Marx, Chico, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, and educational exhibitions of scantily clad women illustrating “the history of the bathing suit”. Dixieland bands played songs like “Hadacol Boogie” and “Who Put the Pep in Grandma?”
Senator Le Blanc used Hadacol’s success to drive his political career, and his competitors, the Longs – descended from the democrat reformer Huey Long – panicked: in a moment of genius they launched their own patent medicine, and called it “Vita-Long”. Now, suddenly, it was a two quack race.
By 1951 the game was up. LeBlanc was spending more in advertising that he was making in sales, but to him it seemed like a great game. He sold the company to Yankee investors, who soon realised they’d bought a pup. On the 28th February, shortly before he disappeared for a decade, facing charges of fraud, the Senator appeared on top-rated TV show “You Bet Your Life” with his old friend Groucho Marx. “Hadacol?” said Groucho, “What’s that good for?” “Well,” said Le Blanc. “It was good for about… 5 and a half million dollars for me last year.”
If this floats your boat then there’s a great book by Ann Anderson called “Snake Oil, Hustlers and Hambones”, as well as the weightier (and broader) “Quacks” by Roy Porter. Or if you’re a skinflint you can read The Medical Messiahs by James Harvey Young in its entirety online for free.