Gaultheria (The Oil)

Botanical name: 

The first record of the therapeutical use of this oil, as is often the case with valuable medicines, is to be found in empirical medicine. The proprietary remedy, very popular about the beginning of this century under the name "Panacea of Swaim," or "Swaim's Panacea," introduced it.

This remedy gave added impetus to our Compound Syrup of Sarsaparilla, having become so popular as to force itself to the attention of the profession. The Sarsaparilla Compound of the name "Sirup or Rob Anti-Syphilitica" was closely associated with Swaim's Panacea and Ellis, 1843, after giving the formula of "Sirup Rob Antisyphilitica" in his Formulary, p. 67, says: "The above preparation has been asserted, by the New York Medical Society, to be nearly identical with the noted Panacea of Swaim."

That oil of gaultheria was a constituent of Swaim's remedy and that it was brought into conspicuity therein, may also be seen from an analysis of Swaim's Panacea (by Chilton) recorded in the Am. J. Med. Sciences, 1829, p. 542. The following reprint from an anonymous writer in the American Journal of Pharmacy, 1831, establishes the subject more clearly in that it gives a very fair description of oil of gaultheria as well as making a statement to the effect that it is the same as sweet birch oil, and showing further that many different plants yield the same oil.

Oil of Gaultheria procumbens:—"This is the heaviest essential oil of which we have any knowledge, for I have found it to be 1.17. This furnishes us with an easy mode of testing its purity. The wonderful success of Swaim's Panacea has brought this oil into great vogue with all venders of Catholicons, Panaceas, and Syrups of Sarsaparilla.

It appears to be a vegetable principle secreted in plants very widely separated by their natural affinities. The Betula lenta, or Sweet Birch secretes it in its bark; the Polygala paucifolia in its roots; the Spiraea ulmaria * the Spiraea lobata and the Gaultheria hispidula in their roots and stalks.

* Pagenstecher described oil of Spiraea ulmaria in the Repertorium f. d. Pharmacie, 1834, p. 337, and is credited by Procter with its discovery. But we have in this paper a reference that antedates him three years. Still, this anonymous writer is preceded thirteen years by Dr. Jacob Bigelow, as shown in our history.

But that oil of wintergreen was used somewhat in domestic medicine about that date, and also by Dr. Wooster Beach, the forerunner of Eclectic medicine, is evidenced, for Dr. Beach in his American Practice of Medicine, Vol. III (1833, p. 201), concerning Gaultheria "Gaulthera" repens, states that "The oil relieves the tooth ache."

Antedating this paper, I have not succeeded in finding any reference whatever to oil of gaultheria being used in medicine, although the plants that contain it were generally recognized in pharmacy, the oil being distilled by primitive methods and known to druggists. Thus, as showing that even if used at all it could not have been important I need only to refer to a few of the many authorities who would not have overlooked it.


"Gaultheria, Kalm. (385) (Gen. 487).—Usus foliorum in infuso, loca Theae. Dixit plantam Cl. Kalmius a. D. D. Gaulthier, Medico Canadensi, Botanico eximio." No reference to the oil.


"The Gaultheria procumbens, which we call Mountain Tea, is spread very extensively over the more barren, mountainous part of the United States," etc. Does not mention the oil.


No mention of the oil or plant.

W. P. C. BARTON, MAT. MED. I, P. 171, 1817. (43a)

Although he describes the medicinal virtues of Gaultheria in detail, he does not mention the oil. However, as showing that oil of gaultheria was distilled preceding 1818 I will cite,

BIGELOW., AMER. MED. BOTANY (69), II, P. 28. BOSTON, 1818.

Pyrola umbellata (p. 15) is herein called Wintergreen.

Gaultheria procumbens (Partridge Berry) :— "The aromatic flavor of the Partridge berry, which can not easily be mistaken by those who have once tasted it, may be recognized in a variety of other plants whose botanical habits are very dissimilar.

"It exists very exactly in some of the other species of the same genus, particularly in Gaultheria hispidula; also in Spiraea ulmaria and the root of Spiraea lobata. It is particularly distinct in the bark of sweet birch, Betula lenta, one of our most useful and interesting trees.

"This taste and odor reside in a volatile oil, which is easily separated by distillation. The essential oil of Gaultheria, which is often kept in our druggists' shops, is of a pale or greenish-white color, and perfectly transparent. It is one of the heaviest of the volatile oils, and sinks rapidly in water, if a sufficient quantity be added to overcome the repulsion of the two heterogeneous fluids. Its taste is aromatic, sweet, and highly pungent.

"The oil appears to contain the chief medicinal virtue of the plant, since I know of no case in which the leaves, deprived of their aroma, have been employed for any purpose. They are nevertheless considerably astringent, etc.

"The leaves, the essence, and the oil of this plant are kept for use in the apothecaries' shops.

"The oil, though somewhat less pungent than those of peppermint and origanum, is employed for the same purposes," etc.

In this connection, as indicating that the oil was unimportant, perhaps simply an article of curiosity to pharmacists, it may be pointed out that the American Dispensatory of J. R. Coxe, 1825, mentions oil of gaultheria, but does not say anything with regard to its value or use in medicine.

The edition of 1818 does not mention the plant or oil at all.

In studying the pharmacopeial record of this oil, in connection with its materia medica and dispensatory history the fact becomes apparent that: oil of gaultheria was made in a primitive way by country people (as is still largely the case) about the beginning of this century.

It was introduced into the list of known essential oil-bearing plants of America in the first (1820) Pharmacopeia, but was not described. Following this, such works as the American Dispensatories and American Materia Medicas gave the oil a complimentary position, but it was of no importance until brought forward by the analysis of Swaim's Panacea. Not until long after 1820 did any European dispensatory or pharmacopeia give it position.

Summary: Oil of Gaultheria was distilled for druggists previous to 1820, but no public description of the apparatus or method was printed.

The Pharmacopeia of the United States, 1820, gave the first authoritative method of making it.

It was prominently introduced to the profession by the New York Medical Society, 1827, under whose auspices the oil was established as a characteristic constituent of Swaim's Panacea, the report being published in 1829.

We know of no pharmacopeial direction for making oil of gaultheria from any source whatever which precedes the first (1820) Pharmacopeia of the United States, and no reference to its being made from gaultheria or sweet birch preceding Bigelow, 1818.

Thus it is evident that while the plant gaultheria has the advantage concerning conspicuity of name, the same date of introduction and same reference (Bigelow) must be ascribed to both oil of gaultheria and birch.

Swaim's Panacea.—The important fact elucidated by the foregoing history of oil of Gaultheria, to wit, that it first received recognition in this once popular remedy, leads to a few words concerning this compound. In the beginning of the present century a French proprietary remedy "Rob de Laffecteur" was very popular throughout France and her colonies. It was invented by a French apothecary Boiveau, who affixed to it the name of Laffecteur to make it popular. In 1811 certain New York physicians used this "Rob de Laffecteur" with success and Dr. McNevin, who obtained the formula from a French chemist, M. Allion, made its composition public.

Mr. Swaim, a bookbinder, was treated by Dr. A. L. Quackinboss and experienced great benefit from the remedy. Procuring the formula from Dr. Quackinboss, his physician, he modified it considerably and put the mixture on the market under the name Swaim's Panacea. This became very popular and at last attracted the attention of the medical profession, and by the analysis of Mr. Chilton (1829), under the auspices of the New York Medical Society, it was positively shown that Swaim had replaced the sassafras of Quackinboss' formula by wintergreen oil and had also introduced corrosive sublimate into the mixture.

Persons interested in this formula and subject will find detail reports as follows:

American Journal of Pharmacy, 1827, p. 123.
American Journal of the Medical Sciences, 1829, 4, p. 530.
American Journal of the Medical Sciences, 1829, 5, p. 542.

The History of the Vegetable Drugs of the U.S.P., 1911, was written by John Uri Lloyd.