The chance discovery of a mysterious “rattlesnake root” potion has unearthed the forgotten story of a spectacular pharmaceutical failure of a time less past than previously thought.
Cairns historian Duncan Ray obtained an antique-looking liquid bottle bearing a Rattlesnake Root Cough Blend label that promised “temporary relief from cough and chest cold symptoms.”
It was invented in Far North Queensland by Trinity Beach-based Cast Pharmaceuticals company, according to the consummate label, but very little else was known.
However, there was a hint that this decrepit ship might not have been from the archaic vintage suggested by its bombastic name.
Its volume was written in milliliters, and the step-by-step measurement of Australian measurement systems did not begin until 1966.
The pilot attack carries its fangs
It was 1989 and Chris Shaw had just opened a new pharmacy in Trinity Beach.
Business was slow at first, but gradually picked up again as the 50-year-old British-born chemist went about his business treating a myriad of tropical diseases.
The money was coming, but it wasn’t supposed to last.
The city came to an abrupt halt when the seven-month trade union stalemate known as the 1989 Pilot Dispute grounded the planes and wrested the tourism dollar from the Cairns economy.
Mr. Shaw had signed a bank loan with an interest rate of 17.5%, which he said had peaked at 24.5% and things were looking bleak.
“The money has gone down, the trade has gone down and my business has started to look very shaky,” he said.
The only option was to get creative, so he leaned on the training he had received in England many years earlier.
“Stress creates innovation and my mind has gone back to mortar and pestle, plates of ointment and the combination of the disease to be treated,” he says.
“I didn’t go back to dripping candles, human skulls and a few ravens, but the pharmacy has had a generational change.
“I thought I could make my concoctions for a low price, buy some bottles and label them. How hard could that be?
“As long as you can truly justify the effectiveness of the ingredients and the correct dosage, what could possibly go wrong?”
A particular blend is born
Quite a few could go wrong, it turned out.
Mr. Shaw invented a new cough blend based on a list of tried and true herbal ingredients that included senega, a North American flowering plant that also goes by the name of “rattlesnake root”.
The latter term satisfied his literary impulses and became the protagonist of the show.
“Since there was a near-total lack of humor in a withering society, I decided to call it Rattlesnake Root Cough Mixture as a kind of whimsical mood lifter,” says Mr. Shaw.
“I made a batch, bottled it and labeled it on a bench the size of a game table and put it up for sale. And it did!”
He had previously worked for a medical representative in the Caribbean, so the idea of traveling door-to-door to sell drugs was not entirely foreign.
Unfortunately, Mr. Shaw soon discovered that the pharmaceutical industry was a particularly cramped and conceited haunt of Puritans.
Drugs are not funny
It was a marathon.
Mr. Shaw says he got the Pharmacy Guild of Australia on board to help with some aspects of marketing, but he was all the footwork.
He visited around 900 pharmacies over the span of 10 weeks and found that the name that tickled his sense of humor so much didn’t resonate with his peers.
Evidently the rattlesnake root was too close to “snake oil” to feel comfortable.
“I found that pharmacists, in general, have no sense of humor,” says Shaw.
“However, it was not a commercial success.”
Mr. Shaw remembers an interesting scenario when he visited a very large pharmacy in Brisbane, only to come face to face with the representative of a company that had hired him for three years in London.
He was selling the same cough concoction that had earned Mr Shaw best selling awards in the UK two decades earlier.
“Unfortunately, there was no one to share that little cosmic joke with,” he says.
From penicillin to the pen
It was a commercial bombshell, but Mr. Shaw doesn’t regret his big bet.
He says he survived the pilots’ strike, divorce, post-traumatic stress disorder that rendered him unable to work for three years and temporary estrangement from his children, and started writing.
These days things are improving.
The mortar and pestle are now relegated to the kitchen cupboard and so far he has written 10 fiction books, with two more in the pipeline.
Rattlesnake Root Cough Blend is just a distant memory.
“It was another one of my bright ideas that didn’t actually work in theory or in practice,” says Mr. Shaw.
“But I still think it was a pretty good concoction.”
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