Vaseline - a miracle cure?

Vaseline - a miracle cure?

18 May 2012 by Justin Pollard

Engineers are practical folk, as I've noted before, and their ability to patch things up is largely what holds the world together (along with gaffer tape). But that is not to say they are always aware of the value of the things they discover en-route, as the drilling engineers in the US oil fields of the 1850's handsomely proved.

The 1850s saw the first boom in petroleum production in the USA and nowhere was it booming more than in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Drilling for oil was and is dirty and dangerous job leading to all manner of cuts, scrapes and burns. But the engineers there had a neat little trick to stop these inconveniences from causing too much trouble. Around the drilling rod of active wells, a thick waxy substance would accumulate, which was known, not unsurprisingly, as 'rod wax.' This petroleum derivative had no commercial value but the engineers had discovered that it was very useful for smearing on cuts and burns which seemed to heal all the quicker under a layer of this grease. This was useful but nobody in Titusville was going to write home about it. After all they were busy creating the petroleum economy and it was oil that they were interested in.

In fact it would take someone from a wholly different profession, chemistry, to take a real interest in rod wax and that chemist appeared in the Pennsylvanian oil fields in 1859 in the form of Robert Chesebrough. Cheseborough wasn't having a very good year if the truth were told. He'd started his career in London purifying whale oil derivatives and the crude oil industry was putting him out of business. Not one to dwell on his misfortune however he'd taken ship for the US to see what all the fuss was about and work out if he could apply his skills to this new substance. And that's where he came across rod wax, which to him was not simply a useful hand cream - it was a miracle.

In fact without his astonishing belief in rod wax the world might now be a considerable less well lubricate place. Taking samples of the wax back to Brooklyn he spent the next ten years analysing and purifying it down to a clear, odourless gel, which he christened 'Petroleum Jelly.' He then began courageously testing it on himself by burning and cutting his hands with knives, acids and flames. The applied jelly did indeed seem to aid the healing of such wounds and so he set about marketing his discovery. Sadly the pharmacists of New York seemed resistant to its charms - perhaps because they were all too used to seeing snake oil salesmen.

Still unbowed, the redoubtable Chesebrough took his 'wonder jelly' on the road, travelling across the state demonstrating its curative powers. To do this was no small undertaking as it required an awful lot of cuts and burns to treat - cut and burns Chesebrough dutifully gave himself at the beginning of each demonstration. This certainly had an effect on the gathered crowds who admired such spirit and by 1870 he was selling a jar a minute - enough of the stuff to open his first factory.

Now he needed a name for his product and in 1872 he patented it as the now-familiar 'Vaseline'. No-one is quite sure how he came by this name but the best guess is that he combined the German 'wasser' (water) and the Greek 'έλαιον' (oil). Other sources suggest he named it after the vases he kept his experimental product in. Either way it was a hit.

But Chesebrough wasn't content with healing minor scrapes. Indeed, after all that self-harm, he became convinced that there was some 'miracle ingredient' hiding in jelly that had astonishing curative powers. So much did he trust the stuff that when he developed pleurisy in the 1880's he had his nurse cover him from head to foot in Vaseline in the certain belief that it would cure him. Astonishingly, he duly recovered. There are no reports of the long term effects of the procedure on his nurse. Nor was he alone in raving about its potential. When Queen Victoria knighted him for his contribution to medicine she allegedly told him that she used Vaseline every day. Sadly, she didn't say what for.

Of course if you ask a modern doctor they'll tell you that there's nothing miraculous about petroleum jelly. All it does is provide a sterile barrier over an injury site which prevents bacteria getting in and moisture getting out - not that that's a bad thing at all, indeed the incredibly benign nature of Vaseline makes it a hospital staple to this day. But Chesebrough remained convinced he had stumbled upon a wonder drug. Indeed, such was his belief that he not only covered himself in it, he even ate a spoonful of it everyday.

He lived to be 96.

Edited: 13 November 2012 at 10:16 AM by Eccentric engineer Moderator

Share |


    Posted By: Justin Pollard @ 18 May 2012 12:16 PM     General  

FuseTalk Standard Edition - © 1999-2016 FuseTalk Inc. All rights reserved.

Latest Issue

E&T cover image 1607

"As the dust settles after the referendum result, we consider what happens next. We also look forward to an international summer of sport."

E&T jobs

  • Spectrum Technology Analyst

    • Baldock, Hertfordshire
    • £Competitive Plus Comprehensive Benefits Package

    Ofcom is the independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications sectors and we are globally respected for the work we do.

    • Recruiter: Ofcom

    Apply for this job

  • Test Engineering Opportunities

    • Hanslope Park, Milton Keynes
    • Salary offered will depend on skills and experience

    Push incredible innovations beyond their limits. Opportunities for Software, Hardware, EMC, Test and Inspection Engineers!

    • Recruiter: HMGCC

    Apply for this job

  • Development Engineer Opportunities

    • Hanslope Park, Milton Keynes
    • Salary offered will depend on skills and experience

    At HMGCC, we’re the place where exceptional creativity, ground-breaking ideas and cutting-edge technologies unite.

    • Recruiter: HMGCC

    Apply for this job

  • Head of School of Engineering and Advanced Technology

    Massey University
    • Albany or Palmerston North

    This role offers an outstanding opportunity to lead and further develop a well-established and internationally recognized School.

    • Recruiter: Massey University

    Apply for this job

  • Engineering Support Opportunities

    • Hanslope Park, Milton Keynes
    • Salary offered will depend on skills and experience

    Working in one of our support roles, you’ll be integral to the creation of some of the most advanced bit of kit in the world.

    • Recruiter: HMGCC

    Apply for this job

  • Programme Manager, Network Resilience

    Energy Networks Association
    • Westminster
    • Competitive salary, dependent on experience

    Co-ordinate the network resilience, emergency planning and the Single Electricity Number (SEN) work in the ENA Engineering team.

    • Recruiter: Energy Networks Association

    Apply for this job

  • Senior Engineer - Configuration

    BAE Systems
    • Surrey, Frimley, England / England, Weymouth, Dorset
    • Negotiable

    Senior Engineer - Configuration Would you like to assist the Combat System Configuration Manager in ensuring that changes to the Common Combat System design are sufficiently assessed, approved, implemented, managed and controlled in accordance with BAE Sy

    • Recruiter: BAE Systems

    Apply for this job

  • System Planning and Investment Engineer

    • Reading
    • 37,000 - £55,000 Plus excellent benefits package - salary depending on experience

    System Planning and Investment team act as custodian of the 132kV and EHV distribution network, provide business with technical expertise.

    • Recruiter: SSE

    Apply for this job

  • Chair in Integrated Sensor Technology

    The University of Edinburgh
    • Edinburgh, City of Edinburgh

    The University of Edinburgh is one of the world’s top 20 institutions of higher education.....

    • Recruiter: The University of Edinburgh

    Apply for this job

  • Metering Engineer

    Department for Business, Innovation and Skills
    • Teddington, United Kingdom
    • £24,109 - £27,961 plus EO Electronics PE of £8,090.00

    We are now looking for a Metering Engineer to deliver RD’s In-Service Testing (IST) scheme for gas and electricity meters.

    • Recruiter: Department for Business, Innovation and Skills

    Apply for this job

More jobs ▶


Choose the way you would like to access the latest news and developments in your field.

Subscribe to E&T