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From The Pen of Naipaul: Dodd’s and Ferrol

Published: 
Sunday, October 9, 2016
Back in Times
1914 ad for Ferrol Compound.

“With this boy, whose name was Alec, Mr Biswas became friendly. The colours of Alec’s clothes were a continual surprise, and one day he scandalized the school by peeing blue, a clear, light turquoise. To excited inquiry Alec replied, ‘I don’t know, boy. I suppose is because I is a Portuguese or something.’ And for days he gave solemn demonstrations which filled most boys with disgust at their race. It was to Mr Biswas that Alec first revealed his secret, and one morning recess, after Alec had given his demonstration, Mr Biswas dramatically unbuttoned and gave his. There was a clamour and Alec was forced to take out the bottle of Dodd’s Kidney Pills.”

Everyone who has read the masterpiece of Sir V S Naipaul, A House for Mr Biswas would be familiar with these lines. Alec, the bosom buddy of the protagonist, Mohun Biswas and his blue urine are an outstanding example of comic relief in the novel which explores many coming-of-age themes in a way unlike that of other authors. What of Dodd’s Kidney Pills? These were a type of patent medicine that enjoyed some widespread popularity in Trinidad during the 1920s-40s. 

The manufacturers claimed many astonishing feats for these tablets in a way not unlike some modern day snake oil salesmen use televised pitches to sell remedies for illnesses which either do not exist or else are downright dangerous to the consumer. According to some period literature found in a box of Dodd’s:

“DO YOU KNOW that Dodd’s Kidney Pills have earned a record of many hundred cures of Heart troubles, Shortness of breath, Asthma, Dropsical swellings, Mental decline, Loss of sexual power; any or all of which are preventible by the timely use of Dodd’s Kidney Pills?”
One of the sales promotions that the makers ran was the Dodd’s Almanac which is a period relic also noted by Naipaul:

“For a week the school’s urinals ran turquoise; and the druggist attributed the sudden rise in sales to the success of the Dodd’s Kidney Pills Almanac which, in addition to jokes, carried story after story of the rapid cures the pills had effected on Trinidadians, all of whom had written the makers profusely grateful letters of the utmost articulateness, and been photographed.”

Long after he became an adult, Dodd’s Kidney Pills were a running joke with Mr Biswas. In a period of organisational change at the newspaper where he worked as a journalist, we read his wry comments about the new arrangements for the use of lavatories:
“Guess what? Editor peeing in a special place now, you know. ‘Excuse me. But I must go and pee—alone.’ Everybody peeing in the same place for years. What happen? He taking a course of Dodd’s Kidney Pills and peeing blue or something?”

Shortly after the chapter in which Mr Biswas becomes a driver or sub-overseer on Green Vale estate (owned by his in-laws, the overbearing Tulsis), he suffers a nervous breakdown which is described in spectacular detail by Naipaul and is given a huge element of poetic tragedy. When Mr Biswas is brought back to the Tulsi stronghold of Hanuman House for convalesce, a doctor is sought who prescribes among other things, “a tonic called Ferrol with reputed iron-giving, body-building qualities.”

It is quite noteworthy that today, more than 80 years after the events in the novel, one can walk into almost any pharmacy in T&T and purchase a bottle of that very same Ferrol in the identical familiar black bottle in a blue box with a white fish printed on it. This mixture is a malt extract which had been manufactured in British Guiana since the early years of the 20th century and became something of a Caribbean classic. Everyone from children to the elderly who seemed listless and lethargic could be dosed on Ferrol and be revived. 

The original importer in T&T was the well-known department store chain of Smith Brothers and Co, otherwise known as the Bonanza. The Bonanza drugstore on Frederick Street was the distributor of many patent medicines but Ferrol was its biggest seller. By the 1930s, the concern was taken over by D Hope Ross and Co. 

The new owners quickly dissipated the near-monopoly that the Bonanza held through their lack of marketing zeal and among other brands, the manufacturers of Ferrol removed them as the local agents and instead gave the franchise to a local commission agent of Chinese ancestry, Louis Jay Williams. 

Next week, we shall delve more into the world of the novels of Naipaul.

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