Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Story of Tyrrell H. Duncombe

This collectible old bottle has a connection to Rochester, Michigan and an intriguing back story. The product known as "Germex" was manufactured in Highland Park and Rochester, Michigan by Tyrrell Hubert Duncombe, who ran the Duncombe Research Laboratory in both locations from the late 1920s until his death in 1945.

Duncombe was born in Ontario in 1867, the son of a prominent physician and Canadian member of parliament. From 1889 until 1910 he was a pharmacist in St. Thomas, Ontario, where he also ran a real estate business.  Duncombe built the New Duncombe Opera House in St. Thomas and there exhibited the first motion pictures ever shown in Canada.

In 1910 he moved to Detroit, and by the late 1920s was a resident of Avon Township (now Rochester Hills), living on Washington Road.

Tyrrell Duncombe was a prolific inventor and was issued many U.S. and Canadian patents. Among them were patents for an acetylene gas generator in 1902, a coin-operated vending apparatus in 1910, a rotary internal combustion engine in 1921, and a traditional fuselage airplane with helicopter capabilities in 1930.

In addition to his mechanical inventions, Duncombe also styled himself  a cancer researcher, and he ran afoul of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission in 1935 when his claims that his Germex product was an effective treatment for cancer and other diseases fell under the agency's scrutiny. In a 1937 finding and summary of the investigation into Duncombe's case, the FTC cataloged the following claims that had been made by him in advertising for Germex:
Represented that cancer cures attained by said preparation were "beyond  all comprehension," and that it was a cure for syphilis, arthritis, pernicious anemia, and gangrene, and a remedy for tuberculosis, and that notable results were being obtained by use thereof in such diseases as cancer, sinus, catarrh, etc., and that it was used most successfully for various other diseases and was recommended for or effective in various other ailments, including kidney and liver trouble, pyorrhea, etc., and variously recommended same as a competent cure and remedy for everything that local doctors are called upon to treat and for any diseases caused by parasites or bacteria, and made use of circulars and other literature containing purported testimonials by various people to the effect that they had been suffering from cancer, ulcers and other diseases and had been relieved or cured thereof or completely restored to health by use of said preparation. . .
In his biographical entry in the National Cyclopedia of American Biography, Duncombe claimed that he had been graduated from "Ontario College of Pharmacy in 1889, M.D. at Rush Medical College, Chicago, in 1893 and D.C. at Chiropractic College, Detroit, Mich., in 1912."  The FTC investigation, however, took issue with his educational claims and described his credentials thus:
Although respondent is, or at one time was, a pharmacist, he is not registered as such in Detroit or Wayne County, Mich. Respondent never took a course in medicine and holds no degree in medicine. Respondent, however, in written communications prescribing and selling "Germex" has signed himself "Dr. T. H. Duncombe." Respondent explains that he uses the word or title "Dr." because he is a chiropractor. When questioned in regard to chiropractic, respondent was unable to state accurately the number of vertebrae in the spinal column.
The FTC further asserted in its findings that Duncombe had no substantive knowledge of the conditions that he claimed Germex could treat:
Respondent never read, nor could he give the name or title of any book on the subject of arthritis, anemia, syphilis, trench mouth, or scarlet fever. Respondent could name no book or article he had ever read on septicemia, gangrene, ulcers, diabetes, tuberculosis, or other diseases enumerated in his advertising material.
Notwithstanding the fact that respondent is not a doctor and is without medical education, he has not hesitated to consult with patients, to undertake to diagnose their troubles and to prescribe his product, "Germex" for them.
So what, exactly was Germex? The chemical analysis conducted by the FTC investigators found that:
Bacteriological examinations of "Germex" disclose that it is not an antiseptic, is not sterile and contains pathogenic or disease-causing bacteria.
. . .
Chemical analyses of a sample of ''Germex" as made by the Laboratories of the Detroit Department of Health disclosed the product to be a brown liquid, cloudy in appearance, with a yellowish residue on the bottom and a scum on the surface of the liquid standing in the bottom. The sample contained 8.18% of ethyl alcohol by volume, a deficiency of .82ff. had a musty odor, a slightly acid reaction, small amounts of resin and glucocides, total solids of .97'i of this .147, representing a composition of ash, largely sodium carbonate, and a trace of potassium carbonate.
Unimpressed, the FTC in 1937 issued a "cease and desist" order against Duncombe and the Duncombe Research Laboratory with respect to the sale and distribution of the product known as Germex. Tyrrell H. Duncombe died eight years later. He is buried in Mount Avon Cemetery.

Thanks to Rod and Susan Wilson for the photo of the Germex bottle.

1 comment:

  1. Thank for the great article, and picture, about Tyrrell Duncombe. Tyrrell was the youngest of 13 children born to Dr. David Duncombe from Waterford, Ontario.
    I am related to Dr. Duncombe's youngest daughter and have always been on the lookout for additional information about the various children.
    If anyone has additional information about Tyrrell Duncombe, his children, or other members of the Duncombe family I hope you might contact me.
    Michael Duncombe Ball