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July 23, 2002

A public radio commentary

Right in your medicine cabinet is one of the very first products made from oil. Its that jar of vaseline, known generically as petroleum jelly.

It began in the late 19th century with a young chemist, Robert Chesebrough, who sold kerosene. Chesebrough got his kerosene from the oil of sperm whales, but by 1859 he was put out of business when, in Titusville, Pennsylvania, the first successful oil well was installed. This new "oil" attracted him to Titusville. While visiting he learned of a gooey substance, called rod wax, that stuck to the drilling rigs. It built up on drill bits as they punctured the ground. This rod wax was a nuisance to the riggers. They just scrapped it off and tossed it away. But rumors floated around that it had miraculous healing powers. So, Chesebrough got a bucket, loaded it up with this black wax and took a sample back to his Brooklyn Lab.

As a chemist it didn't take him long to extract the key ingredient - the translucent material we know today as petroleum jelly. Today we wouldn't get very excited about something like petroleum jelly, but in Chesebrough's time, the only oils available where lard, goose grease or garlic oil -- all of which spoiled and smelled awful. So Chesebrough's nearly colorless, unspoilable, odorless oil seemed like a miracle.

To test it's miracle properties he inflicted cuts and burns on himself, then covered them with his new gel. It did help, although at the time no one realized that this was because it sealed out bacteria, thus preventing infections.

Satisfied that his new grease had healing properties, he took to the road with his own medicine show, but first he named his gel. Using the German word for water (wasser) and the Greek word for oil (elaion) he came up with "Vaseline." Next, he travelled around New York State demonstrating his miracle vaseline. Before a rapt audience he'd burn his skin with acid or an open flame, then spread the clear jelly on his injuries, showing at the same time his past injuries, healed, he claimed, by his miracle product.

Amazingly this worked. Soon he was selling a jar a minute, and when these ran out people begged their druggists to order more from Chesebrough. It was used for everything: chest colds, chapped hands, nasal congestion, and even to remove stains from furniture. By the turn of the twenty century it had penetrated the American market and was entering Europe, making Chesebrough a very rich man.

Although its miracle properties were eventually debunked, Chesebrough himself was always a true believer. He lived to age 96, revealing shortly before he died the secret to his longevity: Every day of his life he ate a spoonful of vaseline.

Copyright 2002 William S. Hammack Enterprises