American inventor and businessman Thomas Alva Edison is legendary for his contributions to such technologies as the lightbulb, the telephone, the phonograph, and motion pictures, among many others.1In his lifetime, Edison obtained 1,093 US patents and some 1,239 patents in other countries. Little known among these efforts was his “improved anesthetic compound.”

In the summer of 1882, George F. Shrady (Founder and Editor, Medical Record  1866–1904) (1837–1907), reported that Thomas Edison invented a new anesthetic made of chloroform, ether, alcohol, and camphor and had applied for British and German patents.2The witty but misinformed editor added, “Edison may wish to use it on his stockholders until electric light was in successful operation.”

In fact, the “anesthetic” actually was an analgesic liniment that Edison had prepared in early 1878. He named it Polyform and advertised it for “neurologic pain.” Polyform was a mixture of chloroform, ether, camphor gum, alcohol, chloral hydrate, morphine, and oils of peppermint and clove. Edison believed that his compound’s various analgesics would potentiate each other and that the mixture would attack pain in a “shotgun manner.”3 

In 1879, Edison applied for a US patent but, for unknown reasons, withdrew his application shortly thereafter. In February 1880, the British patent No. 599 was granted to his London agents for a slightly modified compound.3The editor of the Medical Record  was misinformed: Edison did not apply for a German patent3(written personal communication, Hubert Rothe, Director, Information Department, German Patent and Trademark Office, Munich, Germany, May 2004).

Topical ether and, especially, chloroform had been widely used for musculoskeletal and neurologic pains since their discovery.4At the time of Edison’s invention, not only were liniments of chloroform and of camphor used in the United States,5but there also existed lotions made of chloroform, camphor, ether, alcohol, morphine, and chloral hydrate.6One, Sankt Jakob Oel, had been popular in Germany since the mid-1870s. It was marketed in the United States during the 1880s under the name of St. Jacob’s Oil by the firms of C.A. Voegeler in Baltimore and Kroeger Ltd. of Cincinnati. Its formula is given in several US formularies.6–8 

Whether Edison knew of St. Jacob’s Oil when he invented his Polyform or whether he learned of its existence later on is unknown. The latter may explain why he did not apply for a German patent and withdrew his US application.

The authors thank Gregory J. Higby, Ph.D. (Professor and Director of the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy, Madison, Wisconsin), Michael A. Flannery, Ph.D. (Associate Professor and Associate Director for Historical Collections, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Birmingham, Alabama), and Hubert Rothe (Director, Information Department, German Patent and Trademark Office, Munich, Germany) for their valuable information.

*School of Medicine, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Birmingham, Alabama.

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