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Jack London’s medical kit examined for historical connections

About 80,000 people visit the House of Happy Walls at Jack London State Park every year, taking the time to view the displays of the author’s life and that of his wife Charmian London, and their journey together on the Snark to the South Seas in the early years of the 20th century.

But few of them pay as much attention to the 10-inch long black leather case packed with narrow vials as did Richard Rocco on his visit last year. An associate professor of pharmacology at Samuel Merritt University in Oakland, he wondered what those vials contained, thinking they might provide a “historical snapshot” of medicine used 100 years ago.

The kit had been on display at the park’s visitors center-cum-museum for 30 years, with a sign reading “Medicine Kit from the Snark,” and the labels alone on the narrow vials were tantalizing. One vial read Morphine Sulfate, another Terpin Hydrate & Heroin; one called “Dover’s Powder” contained opium.

“I thought well, that’s interesting,” said Rocco. “I started to research the life of Jack London, read a few of his books – and wrote to the curator, Carol Dodge, asking permission to photograph and catalog the drug kit.”

“I don’t have a lot of time to do research,” said Dodge, who as museum curator oversees properties throughout the North Bay. “So I’m very grateful if someone does have the time and interest to do the research.”

She met Rocco at the park, and arranged for him and his daughter, photographer Denise Rocco-Zilber, to open the case and take the medical kit into a back room. There they cataloged and documented the contents of the medicine kit over a three-hour period, taking notes and photographs for later research. But it didn’t take Rocco too long to put to rest the long-held theory that this was the Snark’s medicine kit.

“Unfortunately, my research has led me to the conclusion that it was not on the Snark voyage,” he said. He reached that conclusion by comparing the 22 vials in the leather case – evidently a widely-available medical kit from the Squibb drug company – with several hundred-year-old Squibb catalogs he managed to dig up.

The Snark set sail from San Francisco on April 23, 1907, returning two years later when both Jack and Charmian London developed health problems in the South Pacific. Any medical kit on the Snark would have likely been sold in about 1906.

That was simply not true of what he calls the Glen Ellen kit. “You’d open the 1906 catalog and they did not match,” said Rocco. “There were requirements to change drug spelling and drug names throughout that period; Squibb kept up with those requirements… So by following the spelling and naming, you can pretty much date the kit.”

Instead Rocco deduced the kit dated from 1908 or 1909, meaning it was probably purchased upon the return of the Londons to California. But not much later: one drug labeled “Rhinitis” – comprised of quinine and belladonna – could not have been produced after 1910, when regulations went into effect disallowing the use of a disease in the naming of a drug. (Rhinitis is an inflammation of the mucous membrane in the nose; if you have hay fever, you have what’s called perennial allergic rhinitis.)

Such commercially available medical kits were not uncommon; today we would call them first-aid kits and, as it happens, some of the same medicine is still in use today. Potassium bicarbonate is a primary ingredient in Alka-Seltzer; a precursor of Tylenol called acetphenetidine was in the kit, as was phenyl salicylic acid, one form of what we now call aspirin.

“I am trying to avoid the sensational,” emphasized Rocco. “But the truth is, the Glen Ellen kit contains vials of drugs that contain morphine, cocaine, heroin and opium. Within the context of 1908-1909 these were all readily-available drugs. Shocking by today’s standards, but common in those times.”

But then State Parks curator Dodge told Rocco that the Squibb kit on display was not the only medicine kit in London’s estate; there were two more in storage at the Sonoma Barracks, one of them from the then-reputable camping firm Abercrombie & Fitch. (A&K is still in business, though now focused on upscale outdoor fashion; Squibb merged with Bristol-Myers in 1989.)

But it’s the other – a wooden medical cabinet with glass doors – that Rocco believes may well have been on the Snark. “There’s a lot inference that it was on the Snark; I intend to write about that,” said Rocco, keeping his cards close to his vest. He plans a more academic paper now in the works to detail the connection between the Sonoma Barracks medical kits and their London connection.

Even Rocco is somewhat surprised by the attention his pharmacological detective work is getting. “This is a whole new endeavor for me. I’m not a Jack London scholar – I only started this a year ago,” he said. But in that year he’s become interested in other aspects of the writer’s career.

Case in point: He has an article coming out soon arguing that it wasn’t pellagra that put London in the hospital in Australia, cutting short the proposed round-the-world journey of the Snark. That was presumed to be one of two illnesses that London developed in the South Seas, the other being a disfiguring skin infection called yaws.

“As many as 15 million people, as estimated by the World Health Organization, suffered from yaws,” said Rocco. “He was treating himself with the standard of care at the time,” which included doses of a substance called corrosive sublimate that, like many turn-of-the-century drugs, contained mercury.

It is now believed that mercury contributed to the chronic kidney disease London had developed over his brief life of hard living, and its excessive use may have been a telling factor in his death, in 1916.

Another direction Rocco’s recent interest has taken him is less medical, and more political. Set to appear later this year in The Call, the biannual magazine of the Jack London Society, is his article detailing London’s 1909 fight with the U.S. Immigration Service, when they would not admit the Japanese student Yoshimatsu Nakata, who was one of the small crew on the Snark.

Given the current state of politics, an article on London’s attitudes on immigration seemed more timely than an academic analysis of a medical kit, even one so historically curious. Noting that London was not his “hero” but a writer who caught his interest, the professor goes on: “Here was a guy fighting and using words and phrases and arguments (about immigration) that we hear today.”

In the end Nikata could not get his immigration papers, and returned to Hawaii after a brief stay in Glen Ellen.

Meanwhile the wood and glass medical kit that may have indeed been on the Snark languishes in deep storage at the Sonoma Barracks. “It would take a bit of digging to unpack the cabinet, and the contents are stored separately so we won’t be able to get to it at this time,” said Dodge.

But Rocco’s still got plans to document that kit, which he says he “cataloged and photographed in excruciating detail.” He plans to reveal his detective work soon.

“Jack London has so many facets, I’m just always amazed,” said Dodge. “It seems like people are always coming up with something new. And I don’t think that’s going to end anytime soon.”

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.