About 20 years ago I found a one-quart clear glass bottle that to me looks like a milk bottle. It is embossed with “National Vaccine and Antitoxin Institute Washington, D.C.” The who and when aspects of this bottle remain a mystery to me. Other than mine, I have only seen one like it, and that was on an online auction site. Any information you can provide will be much appreciated.
— Harry Groenwoldt, Charles County, Md.
Everything old is new again. Would you believe that the National Vaccine and Antitoxin Institute sold something that’s all the rage now: probiotics. That clear bottle contained something the institute called “L.A. Milk.”
No, this wasn’t chardonnay, but milk dosed with lactobacillus acidophilus, a bacteria purported to treat such disorders as constipation, diarrhea and mucus colitis. As one institute print ad advised in rather familiar language: “Ask your physician about it.”
Starting around 1911, the National Vaccine and Antitoxin Institute operated out of a three-story laboratory building at 1515 U St. NW. It was licensed to create cultures to treat, prevent or study such diseases as diphtheria, tetanus and typhoid.
In the lab, scientists also performed chemical analysis of “blood, stomach contents, excreta, etc.” They also tested foods, drugs and well water, important at a time when federal safety regulations were relatively recent inventions.
In 1922 the institute tested nine samples of bootleg liquor and found that four had heavy traces of so-called “fusel alcohol,” a nasty alcohol redolent of varnish. A bottle labeled Haig & Haig whisky was actually bay rum adulterated with wood alcohol.
The heyday of lactobacillus acidophilus was during the mid- to late 1920s, after researchers at Yale University isolated the bacteria. It is found in the human gut and is similar to bacteria present in yogurt-like foods common in Eastern Europe and eaten by people who struck Americans as healthy and long-lived.
The National Vaccine and Antitoxin Institute cultured its own strain of L.A., available pre-mixed with milk in bottles. It also sold the bacteria by itself in a smaller bottle, so that it could be added to other drinks.
In 1935, the company changed its name to Burton-Parsons, after the men who ran it, John H. Burton, a biochemist, and his brother-in-law, a former Pennsylvania schools superintendent named J. Fred Parsons.
Over time, the company expanded its product line and in the 1950s was selling a laxative called Konsyl. But the big change for Burton-Parsons came in the late 1960s, when it entered the burgeoning soft contact lens market — not the lenses themselves, but the solution used to clean them.
And that’s where things took an interesting turn.
Up until 1974, consumers could purify their contact lenses by boiling them for 10 minutes in distilled water with salt tablets. But that year an Food and Drug Administration microbiologist named Mary Bruch — known as “the first lady of contact lenses” — gained oversight of that product. Bolstered by FDA ophthalmologist Arnauld Scafidi, Bruch started disallowing soft lens manufacturers from utilizing salt tablets, decreeing that consumers risked eye infection.
The only cleaning solution she approved was made by Burton-Parsons, which by then was headquartered in Seat Pleasant, Md., and owned by the Manfuso family, which also owned horse-racing tracks around the state. Its product — Boil-n-Soak — cost four times as much as the simple salt tablets.
It emerged during congressional hearings in 1980 that Bruch and Scafidi had been repeatedly wined and dined by Burton-Parsons executives. The Washington Post’s John F. Berry wrote: “Expense records showed that top executives bought Bruch more than 50 meals at places ranging from Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and Brennans in New Orleans to Maison Blanche and L’Auberge Chez Francois in the Washington area . . . [Bruch] also told the congressional committee that she exchanged vintage wine with one of the Manfusos who shared her interest in fine wine.”
Scafidi was unable to provide research to substantiate his claims that salt tablets were unsafe.
In 1974, Burton-Parsons had annual sales of about $5 million. In 1979, after five years of a near monopoly, it was sold to Alcon Laboratories, a subsidiary of Nestle S.A. of Switzerland, for $110 million, according to industry estimates.
Bruch and Scafidi were investigated by the FBI for the favors they allegedly gave the firm. Scafidi resigned, and Bruch was fired.
Answer Man doesn’t know if this gave them upset stomachs, but if it did, he knows a product they could have asked their physicians about.
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For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.