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