On the bleak shore of Norway, 
I've lately been told,
Large numbers of cod-fish are found,
And the animals' livers are afterwards sold
At so many "pfennigs" per pound;
From which is extracted, with infinite toil,
A villainous fluid called cod-liver oil!

‘Cod Liver Oil’ by Henry Sambrooke Leigh

Why is it that when people talk about the Welfare State - or ‘state welfare’ as I prefer to call it - they always mention the major provisions of this wonderful institution like education, health care, pensions and so on but rarely touch upon the little things that older people remember so well? Where is Double Concentrated Orange Juice in the conversation? Why leave out Extract of Malt? What is it about Cod Liver Oil that leaves a nasty taste in the mouth?

For centuries Cod Liver Oil had been used across Northern Europe for lighting and tanning leather. Some people actually used to eat it. In Iceland, for example, poor people enjoyed a mutton tallow and fish liver oil concoction called ‘broedingur’ which was highly valued for its health-giving properties…

“Having taken them (fish) thye plucke out the bones, and lay up their bowels, and make Fat or Oyle of them.”

Life and Manner of the Icelanders (1563). Samuel Purchas

Children getting their cod liver oil

In 1797 Encyclopaedia Britannica reported the use of Fish Liver Oil by fishermen in the Western Isles of Scotland as a valued treatment for rickets and bone affections. The Encyclopaedia noted that fish liver oil was “considered superior to any other for this purpose”.

The first English trial of Cod Liver Oil as a medicine was carried out in the 1780’s by Dr Kay and Dr Darbey at the Manchester Infirmary. On February 12th 1782 Dr Darbey wrote…

“For several years after I came to the infirmary, I observed that many poor patients, who were received into the infirmary for the chronic rheumatism, after several weeks trial of a variety of remedies, were discharged with little or no relief… About ten years since, an accidental circumstance discovered to us a remedy, which has been used with the greatest success, for the above complaint, but is very little known, in any county, except Lancashire; It is the cod, or ling liver oil.”

Dr. Kay and Dr. Darbey were so impressed by the results they immediately began prescribing Cod Liver Oil in monumental quantities - between 50 and 60 gallons annually - and this in spite of the fact that the taste and smell were so repulsive that many of their patients could not stomach it.

The reason why Cod Liver Oil in the 1780’s smelled and tasted so ghastly was because it was made by allowing fish livers to putrefy until soft. The oil was then skimmed off as it rose to the surface. Yummy! So nauseating was the process that the Royal Society of Arts offered a prize for the ‘edulcoration’ of the oil (i.e. sweetening or removing the acid or other impurities.) Heat treatment was one idea put forward but it was thought that it would “add an empyreumatic smell to the putrid foeter, which was very little diminished.” Things didn’t improve until 1848 when George Fox of Scarborough invented a process in which fresh cod livers were steamed in a sealed vessel. This produced a virtually colourless oil with only a slight fishy taste and smell - the cod liver oil that we all know and love today.

De Jongh Poster

In 1849 an English translation of “Three Kinds of Cod Liver Oil”, written by the Dutch physician De Jongh, was published which proclaimed that “a new therapeutic agent of extraordinary value had been discovered.” De Jongh was so impressed by cod liver oil that he recommended it as a sure fire treatment for rickets, rheumatism, arthritis, joint affections, anaemia and a host of other ailments.

De Jongh’s book even caught the eye of the London Zoological Society who was concerned it was unable to raise healthy lion and bear cubs. Realising that the diet fed to the young animals consisted of nothing but raw meat, which resulted in severe rickets, the Zoo began adding crushed bone, milk and cod liver oil to the feed. The results were astounding. Within three months the rickets had completely disappeared and the lion and bear cubs were growing into healthy adults. (Winnie the Pooh fans will remember that his friend Tigger benefitted from another childhood dietary supplement, Extract of Malt, borrowed from Roo.)

The rise in popularity of cod liver oil as an all-round treatment was set. Soon Dr. De Jongh started producing and advertising his own…

“No remedy so rapidly restores the exhausted strength, improves the nutritive functions, stop or diminishes emaciation, checks the perspiration, quiets the cough and expectoration or produces a more marked and favourable influence on the local malady.”

De Jongh’s Cod Liver Oil even inspired a popular song…

“Oh doctor, dear doctor, oh doctor de Jongh Your cod liver oil is so pure and so strong I’m afraid of me life, I’ll go down in the soil If me wife don’t stop drinkin’ your cod liver oil.”

The benefits of cod liver oil, rich in Vitamins A + D and those mysterious omega-3 fatty acids, are still recognised today. Those of us who were born during or just after the war were raised on daily doses of the stuff supplied free by the newly established National Health Service. The intention was to make us strong and healthy and ready to take our place in an uncertain future. It must have worked. With the Beatles in one hand and a spoonful of cod liver oil in the other we were soon to conquer the world.

Dr. De Jongh’s Cod Liver Oil song by the Dubliners


– from Martyn Day

CREDITS: The picture of Tigger and friends is by E.H Shepard