Grove's Tasteless Chill Tonic

In The Winter Sisters, medicine man Salmon Thumb comes to Lawrenceville to hawk “Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic,” a name so profoundly amazing I couldn’t possibly make it up.

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Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic was the invention of Edwin Wiley Grove, a Tennessee pharmacist. It was first brought to market in 1885 (I fudged the year for The Winter Sisters, which takes place in 1822). Its primary active ingredient was quinine, a well-known malaria remedy, which has a bitter taste. Soldiers in malaria-prone countries would mix quinine “tonic water” with gin, creating my personal favorite cocktail. There’s still quinine in the tonic water you buy at the grocery store.

Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic was not, in fact, tasteless. It was mixed with sweet syrup and lemon flavoring. Unlike many other patent medicines of the era, Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic doesn’t seem to have contained any alcohol. And quinine is a genuinely effective ingredient in combating malaria, although how much it helped to fatten up children and adults is debatable.

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Malaria was a wide-spread problem in the United States throughout the 19th century and before. Both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were reported to suffer from bouts of the disease. It’s been a killer as long as there have been humans. Across the entire existence of humanity, more humans may have died from malaria than any other cause.

Malaria is a parasite spread by certain species of female mosquitoes (male mosquitoes don’t bite). You can’t catch a bloodborne disease, like hepatitis, from mosquitoes, because blood only flows one way – from you into the mosquito. When a mosquito bites a human victim, she injects an anti-coagulating saliva to keep the blood flowing while she feeds. Malaria and possibly other organisms, like Zika virus, hitch a ride with that saliva into your bloodstream.

Once inside, the malaria parasite infects the liver and then spreads into red blood cells. Under the microscope, it looks like this:

Stained red blood cells; the purple circles are the malaria parasite (Image courtesy  medialab.com )

Stained red blood cells; the purple circles are the malaria parasite (Image courtesy medialab.com)

Malaria can cause fever, nausea, headaches, and tiredness. In some cases, it can lead to death. Those who recover can suffer relapses of malarial fever for years.

Malaria is still a problem today, with an estimated 200 million annual cases that cause more than 500,000 deaths. Some excellent charities, such as Against Malaria, are working towards prevention and treatment. There’s currently no vaccine for malaria, but there are effective medical treatments.

I found an empty bottle of Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic in an antique store in Columbus, GA. I was fascinated by the name and the whole medicine-show scene, and from there, it worked its way into The Winter Sisters.

50 cents full in 1895; $20 empty in 2019

50 cents full in 1895; $20 empty in 2019

“Tasteless Chill Tonic” would make a great name for an album, I think, but I’m not sure what genre. Some kind of smooth jazz with filthy lyrics?

Sources and Further Reading:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edwin_Wiley_Grove

https://www.mosquitosquad.com/greater-dc/about-us/blog/2014/august/history-of-malaria-in-the-usa/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malaria/

The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator by Timothy C. Winegard

Against Malaria