Dr. Reece Investigates: Busting “Elephants’ Milk”

Advertised around 1815 as a cure against distressing, persistent or even untreatable illnesses, “Medicated Elephants’ Milk” caught the eyes of many patients on the brink of giving up hope. It also caught the eye of Dr. Richard Reece (1775-1831), tireless author on domestic medicine, and member of the Royal College of surgeons – and it made him raise his eyebrows. Though the medicine enjoyed considerable success, and patients of high rank were cited to have benefited from “Elephants’ Milk”, it sounded like quackery to Dr. Reece. Thus he decided to have a closer look at it. Read more about a brazen fraud here.

A ‘miracle cure’ against nearly all physical evils

Lac-Elephantis” (Medicated Elephants’ Milk) promised help against venereal diseases, gonorrhoea, noise in the ears, premature waste, blindness, and even grey hair and boldness. It was sold by a Mr P. Campbell, supposed Senior Surgeon of the Royal College of London, living in 29, Great Marlborough Street, London, around 1812-1817. Mr Campbell claimed the content of Lac Elephantis to be genuine elephant milk. It was offered in bottles and also as pills for those unable to drink milk.

Clever medical marketing around 1815

The booklet “Lac-elephantis; or Medicated Elephants’ Milk” was central to Mr Campbell’s marketing campaign

Mr Campbell marketed his ‘miracle cure’ with the help of a small booklet he had written. He sold “Lac-elephantis, or, medicated milk of elephants” for 1 shilling and sixpence. The booklet went through at least five editions. It was a perfect marketing tool, complete with testimonials, heavy name-dropping, exotic locations and a set of arguments against the sceptics. It also told the story of the author’s shining career as a doctor, with a scientific network and international patients of high rank (conveniently, the aristocratic clientele lived in far-away places such as Austria, Portugal or Russia, or had recently passed away). Mr Campbell took care to have his facts as correct as possible: When he claimed to have sailed to Africa in 1812 on board of the Seringapatam, a ship owned by Mr ‘Mellish’ and under orders of a Captain ‘Stivers’, then the ship as well as its route, the owner and the captain were real. Only the spelling of the names went wrong: correct were William Melish and Captain Stavers.

It was not Mr Campbell who had invented the product. He claims to have taken over from a Mr Davy (lost to obscurity today), after his “much lamented friend“, Mr Cavallo, told him about it on the death-bed. Mr Cavallo refers to Tiberio Cavallo, an Italian physicist with special interest in electricity. He moved to Britain in 1771 and became a Fellow of the Royal Society of London.

How to catch an elephant for milking

In his booklet, Campbell described how female elephants could be captured to be milked. According to him, one builds a trap under a tree. The next step is to frighten a group of elephants by noise, smoke and fire into panic, so that the animals take flight. The female elephant and its’ baby conveniently run for shelter to exactly the tree where the trap is set up. The animal could now be trapped and milked, and when it was released, it would return to its group in an instant, wrote Mr Campbell. The milk was than “prepared by our agents in Africa, in such a manner as to be capable of being kept for fifty years, in any climate.

African elephant, engraving by Joseph Elephant Joseph-Guichard Duverney, 17th century

All in all, Lac-Elephantis seemed to have enjoyed considerable success. This caught the attention of other physicians, among them Dr. Richard Reece.

Dr. Richard Reece gets to the bottom of things

Richard Reece was a pharmacist and physician working in London from 1812. Early devoting himself to the profession of medicine, he became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England in 1796. He made his name in London as a physician and manager of the ‘Chemical and Medical Hall’, where he sold ready-made medicine chests for different target groups, and introduced several new drugs into general use. He also wrote and updated the popular Medial Guide and Dictionary for domestic use, and published health magazines such as The Monthly Gazette of Health. His many activities caused other physicians to call him a quack. In return, he was not shy to label others as such.

Reece took objection to Mr Campbell’s Lac-Elephantis in 1817, and set out to prove it was a fraud. He announced in his The Monthly Gazette of Health that he would have the alleged miracle cure analysed. One month later, he published the result, heavily resorting to exclamation marks:

“On examining the contents of a ten-shilling bottle of Elephants’ milk, containing ten ounces, we find it to be composed of spirituous varnish (a solution of gum mastic in spirit of wine) six drachms, water nine ounces two drachms, on adding the varnish, the water becomes white, resembling milk!!! The ten shillings bottle costs the proprietor two pence. The concentrated milk is gum mastic and the doubly concentrated pills contain mercury!!!”

The next thing that was torn to shreds was Mr Campbells professional career:  

“We regret that such a palpable deception should come from a person who has received any thing like a medical education. We would have every man live by his profession, but when a man falls on such a mean subterfuge to entrap the ignorant, he sinks into greatest contempt. (…) For the honour of regular surgeons, we are happy in having in our power to state that the proprietor of Elephants’ Milk is not a member of the college of London. “

Trade card of the Chemical and Medical Hall, supervised by Dr. Reece

The doctors’ fight

Unsurprisingly, Mr Campbell did not take the criticism well. He wrote a harsh letter to the magazine. In turn, Dr. Reece did not hesitate to publish it in The Monthly Gazette of Health:

“You are a most infamous fellow, and only shews your total ignorance of all medicine by making such honourable mention of my Elephants’ Milk in your dastardly and ill-written pamphle. Ly on ignoramus. Each 10s bote coste me 7s 6d. each. Not so good a profit as your’s 11¾d out of every shilling.”

Dr. Reece commented:

“We are sorry that the learned gentleman cannot point out any other error in our statement than that of the price. – Our analysis of his pretended milk is correct, and we defy him or any chemist to prove it otherwise; we therefore repeat that the original cost of the contents of a ten-shilling bottle does not exceed four-pence. If the article is not what the learned doctor represents it to be, viz. the milk of an elephant, the public will not hesitate to pronounce it an imposition.”

A quack doctor offering a gouty John Bull some medicine while conventional doctors are turned away; referring to British politics. Coloured lithograph attributed to J. Doyle (Wellcome Library no. 12250i)

Mr Campbell: a charlatan, a surgeon, and a secret

Today, it is difficult to track down information about Mr Campbell. Lac-Elephantis is what he is remembered for; his first name seems to be lost in history, there are no paintings of him, and even his address remains a mystery: While he himself claimed to sell his medicine in 29, Great Marlborough Street, London, it is not sure if he did so – or where exactly he did it: The same address is claimed by The Shakespeare’s Head, a still existing pub which states to have been at this address since 1735. Or does this mean that Mr. Campbell operated from a pub?

At least we know that Mr Campbell indeed worked in the medical field: He was part of the Royal Jennerian and London Vaccine Institutions’ inoculation team against the small pox around 1816. However, Mr. Campbell’s selling of Lac Elephantis gave the inoculation campaign a bad name. Vaccination activists such as the surgeon John Ring called for banning quacks from being part of the inoculation team.

After the exposure of the fraud, it is unclear what happened to Lac-Elephantis and its proprietor. Did Mr Campbell give up? Was he prosecuted? Did he continue selling his fraudulent medicine? We don’t know. His traces disappear in 1817.

If you have any information on this fascinating case, I would be glad to hearing from you.


Dr. Richard Reece: The Monthly Gazette of Health, or; popular medical, dietetic and General Philosophical journal. VOL. II, from December 1816 – December 1817, 1. Edition, London

P. Campbell: Lac-elephantis, or, medicated milk of elephants: an effectual cure for debility, seminal-weakness, gleets, impotency, spasmodic stricture, blindness, and the venereal disease, in both sexes: with a plain prescription, whereby all persons affected by impure connexion, can radically cure themselves for five shillings, the first day: under the caveat of government, to guard youth against ignorant pretenders, and pretended institutions, for curing these complaints; 5. edition, 1815

John Ring: A Caution Against Vaccine Swindlers, and Impostors, 1816

Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Reece, Richard

The Wellcome Collection, London

The British Museum, London

Article by Anna M. Thane, author of the novel
“Von tadellosem Ruf” (http://amzn.to/2TXvrez)