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Carbolic acid, also known as phenyl alcohol, is a weak acid distilled from coal tar. Undiluted, it can be fatal if ingested, but is found in diluted forms in a number of consumer products as an antiseptic, deodorizer, or disinfectant. Carbolic salve is a salve which contains diluted carbolic acid mixed with an oil base and used to treat minor cuts, scrapes, burns, skin rashes and insect bites.
Until the twentieth century, survival rates for surgery were fairly low. While the surgery may have been successful, the patient often died of infection. Joseph Lister, a British surgeon who subscribed to the germ theory as a cause of infections, became interested in the use of carbolic acid to kill bacteria. Encouraged by the successful treatment of water with this substance, he decided to use diluted carbolic acid to clean surgical wounds on his patients. After nine months he was able to report the astounding news that not one patient so treated had developed post-surgical sepsis, or blood infection.
It took some time for the medical community to embrace this new treatment, but by the 1880’s, products such as carbolic soap and carbolic salve began to appear on apothecary shelves. Some of the claims for the curative powers of carbolic salve were a bit extreme, including cures for everything from worms to burns to facial pimples. Several companies created their own versions of the salve, using a variety of ingredients including lard or some other oil base, wax and herbs. Other plant products were often added for additional medicinal benefits, such as persimmon to act as an astringent in helping to close the wound.
Carbolic salve has won a place in the Smithsonian Institution’s collection of over 4000 patent medicines dated from the 1800’s onward. The product they have on display is A.D.S. Carbolic Salve, which was manufactured by the American Druggist Syndicate in 1930 and promoted for use on sores and bruises. Unlike some of the patent medicines of that era, this product does have several health benefits and continues to be sold.
Veterinarians and dairy farmers still use the ointment to treat minor scratches and cuts on animals and to soothe dry, chapped skin on cow udders. It is a common household product as well. In addition to treating cuts and skin conditions, carbolic salve has a drawing quality that works with slivers, splinters and boils. A person can place the salve on a deep splinter, cover it with some type of bandage, and change it a couple times a day. Quite often, only a few applications are required to draw out the offending object.