An Inventor’s Icky Secret


You’ve used it for decades. It was probably rubbed on your bottom when you were a baby to treat diaper rash. Your mom may have applied it to cuts and burns. Perhaps you still use it to moisten dry skin.

Yet the inventor of this popular product had a different use that will blow you mind (or make your stomach churn).

Here’s how it happened.

Like so many young people, Robert Cheesbrough’s career looked bright when he started working in the 1850s. Born in England and raised in New York City, he was a promising young chemist with an interesting job: he produced kerosene from sperm whale oil. It was used to light homes all over America. The future looked bright for the young chemist

Then his career was derailed just as it was starting.

Petroleum was discovered in western Pennsylvania, launching America’s first oil boom. It also caused the sperm whale oil business to go bust. Why go to the costly, time-consuming hassle of hunting whales when you could just drill a well and extract kerosene from petroleum oil?

It wasn’t long before Cheesbrough was out of work. Figuring if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, he headed to Pennsylvania and experimented with crude’s byproducts.

He learned oil wells produced a black, paraffin-like gel called rod wax. Workers hated the stuff because it made their rigs malfunction. But they noticed rubbing it on their cuts and burns made them heal faster.

Intrigued, Cheesbrough took several barrels of rod wax back to his laboratory and studied it. He refined it into a thinner, lighter colored gel – and was thrilled by its medicinal benefits.

He opened a factory in Brooklyn, New York in 1870 to produce it for commercial sale. He was soon granted Patent 127,568 which, as Cheesbrough explained in his application, “…I have named Vaseline.” (It’s thought he combined the German word for water with the Greek word for oil to come up with the name; crazy as it sounds today, inventors thought that way in the 19th Century.)

Cheesbrough peddled his product with the zeal of an evangelist. He would conduct demonstrations where he burned his hand with an open flame and rubbed Vaseline on it while extolling its virtues, followed by passing out free samples.

Cheesbrough was more than a good salesman; he genuinely believed Vaseline was a wonder drug. While suffering from a severe case of pleurisy in the 1880s, he had his nurse coat his body from head to toe with Vaseline. For whatever reason, he soon recovered from the illness.

He even pushed Vaseline hair products, which sold reasonably well into the middle of the 20th Century.

But he went above and beyond the call of duty with one practice in particular. Cheesborough repeatedly claimed he ate a spoonful of petroleum jelly every day. That’s right; he consumed the same gel used to treat diaper rash!

And here’s the crazy part – it didn’t hurt him. When Cheesbrough died on September 8, 1933 he was 96 years-old.

Who knows? Maybe the secret to reaching a ripe old age has been right there in your medicine cabinet all along. Bon appetit!

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