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Holtermann's 'Great Remedy'

A colleague recently catalogued an original  ‘Holtermann’s Life Preserving Drops’ poster at the Library and I thought some additional information might be of interest.

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holtermannlifedrops
Original held at Mitchell Posters, Posters/Medicine/8

 There is no doubt that Bernhardt Otto Holtermann understood the importance and value of maintaining his association with the world’s largest specimen of reef gold. Unable to purchase the monster quartz and gold specimen when it was extracted from the Star of Hope mine in Tambaroora in 1872, he commissioned the American and Australasian Photographic Company to produce a photographic montage of him standing beside it. Photographers Beaufoy Merlin and Charles Bayliss seem to have carried out this assignment on more than one occasion, as Holtermann wears different clothing in the several known examples of the image.

Obviously pleased with the result, Holtermann used the montage on his business card and on the label to a patent medicine bearing his name. As an advertising ploy, the image of Holtermann resting his hand on the world’s largest hunk of gold can only have been interpreted as a symbol of success and a guarantee of the worth of his product.

 Not surprisingly, Holtermann was issued with a Certificate of Trade Mark on 20th January 1876 for ‘The figure of a Man with his Hat and Coat removed standing beside a Monument of Quartz and Gold and having a hand resting thereon, the word “B O Holtermanns” being above the figure and “Life Drops” below the figure’.

 When Holtermann eventually left Hill End, he built a mansion at St Leonards and spent some of his wealth promoting new fangled inventions and his patent medicine. In 1875, for instance, he became an early advocate of washing powder, a product that would take another seven or eight decades to become popular.

 A REVOLUTION IN THE WASH TUB.  B.O. HOLTERMANN begs to announce to the public that he has made arrangements for the introduction of the greatest labour-saving invention of modern days, in " LAVERS' SERVANTS' FRIEND," a fluid preparation for all washing and cleansing purposes; entirely supercedes soap, saves 50 per cent of ordinary labour and costs, and effects marvellous results. Orders sent to 26, Bridge-street, Sydney; or received by Mr. J. V. LAVERS, will meet with prompt attention. Read the many high-class testimonials to the efficacy of THE SERVANTS’ FRIEND.[1]

A little later, he promoted the benefits of pure water from Mr Lavers’ patent filters.

  PURE WATER  PURE WATER. Persons who value that great desideratum, pure and wholesome water, are invited to inspect "Lavers' Patent Filters, now on view at the office of the undersigned.B. O. HOLTERMANN and CO., 26, Bridge-street.[2]

Neither invention seems to have been heavily promoted, but Holtermann’s use of newspaper advertising increased dramatically in November 1875, when he began to market his Life Preserving Drops on a daily basis in the Sydney Morning Herald and later in the  Brisbane Courier and Maitland Mercury. His first advertisement stated,

 THE GREAT REMEDY for Toothache, Neuralgia, Asthma, &c, &c, &c. B. O. HOLTERMANN’S Life Preserving Drops. Try HOLTERMANN'S Life Preserving Drops for children teething, wasting away, &c. HOLTERMANN'S LIFE DROPS are an immediate remedy for cramps in the stomach, &c. , AS A RESTORATIVE from the exhaustion, incident,  to residence in a hot climate, or violent exercise, HOLTERMANN'S LIFE DROPS are unsurpassed. HOLTERMANN'S DROPS are SAFE, SIMPLER and EFFECTIVE. All may use them. Testimonials and instructions accompany each bottle. Retail, everywhere. Wholesale, B. O. HOLTERMANN and CO. 26, Bridge-street.[3]

A few days later, it seems Holtermann had worked out what ‘&c, &c, &c’ , might be and he added a few more ailments to the list of problems his medicine would cure.

A WONDERFUL remedy for TOOTHACHE is HOLTERMANN’S Life Drops (Registered). HOLTERMANN'S Life Drops surpass any other remedy for nervous HEADACHE.  ANXIOUS Mothers, try HOLTERMANN'S Life Drops for your children. Quite safe. SUFFERERS from DYSENTERY, suffer no longer try HOLTERMANN'S Drops and be relieved. CRAMPS in the Stomach are dispelled immediately by  HOLTERMANN'S Life Drops. As a Preventive to SEASICKNESS the Life Drops are unrivalled. Retail, all chemists. Wholesale, B. O. HOLTERMANN CO., 26, Bridge-street, Sydney.[4]

Nevertheless, Holtermann’s advertising was no more exaggerated than that of his competitors. In 1875, the columns of the Sydney Morning Herald  carried grandiose claims for a plethora of patent medicines, including Dr Lera’s Phosphate of Iron to cure Anemia and Chlorosis; Grimault’s syrup of Hyposulphite of Lime for ‘diseases of the chest hitherto incurable’; Harvey’s ointment for Sore Breasts, Burns, Scalds, Carbuncles, Whitlows and Sore Legs; Freeman’s Chlorodyne (‘one of the greatest discoveries of the present century’) as a Sedative, Anti-spasmotic, Astringent and Disphoretic; J. S. Abraham’s Dandelion Pills, which cured ‘headache and giddiness arising from costive habit, debilitated stomach or torpid liver’ and Professor Thompson’s Eye Water for ‘any eye disease whatsoever’. If that assortment of home remedies didn’t work, patients could always visit 120 Sussex Street , where The Acid Treatment cured Asthma, colds, rheumatism, spinal complaints and ‘all acute and chronic disease’.

Holtermann established an import business at 42 Pitt Street Sydney and advertised everything from Gibson’s Patent Refrigerating Paint (to keep the house cool) to the new Davis Vertical Feed Sewing machine and 2hp. American horizontal steam-engines. Smaller items included  chocolates, cigars, Rhine wine and even caviar. He continued to advertise his Life Drops from 1876 to 1885.

Interestingly Holtermann’s papers [MLMSS 4579] at the State Library of New South  Wales includes correspondence regarding patents for medicines and notes [in German] regarding phamaceutical supplies. Also included [MLMSS 4579/2x] is a copy of Holtermann’s certificate of Trade Mark dated 20 January 1876.

It appears the original recipe came from a German doctor and one extensive handwritten recipe in Holtermann’s papers seems to indicate that the main ingredient of Holtermann’s Life Drops was ‘tinct valerian’. Valerian, prepared from the root of the plant Valeriana officinalis, is a pungent yellow green oil (with an odour similar to a very well-matured cheese), which has been used historically as a sedative, anticonvulsant, migraine treatment and pain reliever.

In 1882, Holtermann was elected member for St Leonards, but it seems his well-known patent medicine provided a source of amusement for his parliamentary colleagues, as this exchange, during an amendment debate on the Medical Bill, shows.

Mr. O'CONNOR said there could he no serious objection to the amendment, but he thought the House would admit that the committee would not be complete unless it included Dr. Holtermann. (Laughter.)

Mr.CAMERON thought the commitee should have power to send for persons, papers, and life drops. (Laughter.)[5]

Holtermann’s Life Preserving Drops may have been popular, but their efficacy was another matter entirely. In the end, Holtermann died on his 47th birthday in 1885, after 18 months’ illness. His doctor recorded the causes of death as ‘cancer of the stomach,cirrhosis of the liver and dropsy’.

By Alan Davies


[1] SMH  20 Nov 1875  p8 

[2] SMH  11 Dec 1875 p3 

 [3] SMH  24 Nov 1875  p7

[4] SMH  27 Nov 1875  p10 

 [5] SMH  14 June 1884  p7