Heritage: Did Wimbledon hold the key to curing tuberculosis?
A bottle that once contained Stevens’ tuberculosis remedy, Lung Specific. Made around 1915, it is part of the Museum of Wimbledon’s artefacts collection
Every year, millions of people worldwide contract tuberculosis and well over a million die of it.
Cases have been rising in Britain and other developed countries in recent years, partly because of growing resistance to antibiotics.
Yet for many years a Wimbledon manufacturer claimed to be selling a cure for the disease. Was he right?
Charles Henry Stevens, who died exactly 70 years ago this week on 5 December 1942, spent much of his life selling his patent cure for tuberculosis.
Born in Birmingham in 1880, he contracted pulmonary tuberculosis at the age of 17 and his doctor advised him to go to South Africa, presumably for the benefit of the climate.
At Bloemfontein he met a witch doctor who prescribed him a potion made from the root of Umckaloabo, a South African geranium. After three months he had made a complete recovery He returned to the UK in 1898 where his doctor confirmed he was now cured.
He went back to South Africa during the Boer War as a soldier and then became a policeman.
However, from 1904 he ran companies selling Umckaloabo as a cure for tuberculosis, first in South Africa and after returning to Britain in 1907, from two addresses in Wimbledon, 32F Broadway and 204 Worple Road.
The remedy, manufactured in Worple Road, was sold under the brand Lung Specific and he offered a money-back guarantee if the tuberculosis patient was not cured.
Before long the business was employing 50 people and he was making £4500 a year, the equivalent of about £400,000 today.
Then in 1909 the British Medical Association published a book entitled Secret Remedies - What They Contain. This accused Stevens of being a quack and within a couple of years his income was down by over a third.
In 1912 he sued the BMA for libel. The jury could not reach a verdict and there was a second trial in 1914 when Stevens tried to recover damages he had suffered.
This time the jury decided that the BMA had acted in the public interest and been right to expose him. The judge ordered him to pay costs totalling £2000 (about £180,000 today). Stevens applied for a third trial in 1915 but was refused.
He served in the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War, reaching the rank of major. Undeterred by the court cases, he also continued to sell the remedy, supported by various prominent people, among them MPs, who established a Committee for the Investigation of Tuberculosis.
The apparent efficacy and lack of toxicity of Umckaloabo influenced some doctors to treat their patients with it despite continuing BMA opposition.
A Swiss doctor, Adrien Sechehaye, claimed to have cured hundreds of tuberculosis patients using the remedy. He later wrote a book entitled The Treatment of Pulmonary and Surgical Tuberculosis with Umckaloabo - Internal Medication (Stevens' Cure) detailing 64 cases.
Indeed, an earlier book had been published in 1893 by an anonymous ‘English Physician’ entitled Tuberculosis - Its Treatment and Cure with the Help of Umckaloabo.
From about 1928 until shortly before his death in 1942 at the Royal Sussex Hospital, Brighton, Stevens maintained a laboratory in Wimbledon producing Lung Specific at 206 Worple Road on the corner of Stanton Road.
It was still available until 1953 although never officially recognized and it was not until the mid-1970s that really clear botanical and chemical descriptions were published of its constituents.
In recent years, funded by the Wellcome Trust, Dr Peter Taylor of London University's School of Pharmacy has looked at the remedy once more in the face of rising antibiotics resistance. It is still sold outside Britain to combat common colds and other respiratory infections, although not for tuberculosis.
Dr Taylor and colleagues isolated the plant’s active component, finding compounds that act on bacteria similar to tuberculosis. If further tests prove successful, Umckaloabo or a derivative of its active component may proceed to clinical trials.
Stevens' cure could become available again within a few years although not under his own brand. Amid its artefacts today, the Museum of Wimbledon at 22 Ridgway, Wimbledon Village, has an aqua-green glass bottle made around 1915 which once contained a proprietary linctus for lung or chest ailments. It is thought to have been made especially for Lung Specific.
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