Phone hacking in the 19th century

By Clare Cheney

- Last updated on GMT

You would not imagine that there would be a link between the News of The World (NoTW, now deceased) and nutrition health claims.

But the centre of the front page of the first edition of the NoTW, dated October 1 1843, contained an article titled The Greatest Discovery of the Age, referring to a paper in the transactions of the Surgical Institute of Paris on experiments on the causes of human longevity.

Post-mortem examinations were carried out on 15 people who had died between the ages of 90 and 100. Three had severe cardiovascular disease but their stomachs and intestines were active and healthy, unlike 11 of the other subjects who had healthy hearts, lungs and arteries but had allegedly died of constipation.

It was concluded that the lives of these individuals would have been prolonged if they had used purgatives on a regular basis. The first three had used them and, as a result, managed to survive longer than would have been expected given their clogged arteries.

The fact that the first three deceased had used purgatives had been reported by the apothecary of the village in which they lived. Could this be the 19th century equivalent of phone hacking?

The NoTW article turned out to be an advertisement for a herbal remedy for constipation called Old Parr's Life Pills that, according to testimonials published in the newspaper, worked a treat. One grateful patient was even moved to express "heartfelt gratitude to God"​ because he felt like a man of 21, instead of his actual 61 years of age, having taken the pills for six weeks.

Upon further investigation, I found that the active ingredient in Old Parr's Life pills was aloe. Moreover, 168 years later, an application for a claim concerning the gastrointestinal health effects of Aloe Vera is currently being considered by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) under the Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation.

In the 1890s there were many pills containing aloe mixed with a variety of other herbs and chemicals, including even strychnine and belladonna. It is not too difficult to prove whether a substance acts as an effective purgative so it ought to be easy to satisfy EFSA on that score, even without having to go to the lengths of post- mortem examinations.

Finally, it was gratifying to discover that a much more reputable publication, the Illustrated London News​, now also defunct, owed its existence to the sideline in sale of Old Parrs Pills by the owners who needed funds for the launch. More ironically still, one of the articles in the first issue May 14 1842 was on the war in Afghanistan. Some things never change.

Clare Cheney is director general of the Provision Trade Federation (PTF).

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