The man who took a spoonful of kerosene oil every day

Robert Augustus Chesebrough (London, January 9, 1837 – New York, September 8, 1933)

Robert Augustus Chesebrough was a chemist by trade. He was educated in London and he tried to make a living in Brooklyn, New York, around the mid-nineteenth century. Among other things with the sale of kerosene, a type of petroleum that was used for kerosene lamps.

Those lamps were the most modern form of home lighting at the time. The first oil drilling took place in 1859 in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Chesebrough heard of the rush on the oil fields and of the derricks springing up like mushrooms.

Some people got rich quickly, the Rockefellers for example. It was obvious that they could use a chemistry talent like his over there.

When the young Brit arrived in Titusville, it turned out that the workers there mainly complained of rod wax, a kind of petroleum lubricant that stuck to the rods and pumps. Because of the smear they had to stop the drilling again and again. And they lost a lot of time.

The strange substance did have a special property: the workers found experimentally that the bruises and abrasions on their hands healed remarkably quickly due to the grease.

Chesebrough took a clod of the stuff to Brooklyn and began experimenting with it in his small lab. He purified the colorless substance and made it into an ointment that he initially called simply petroleum jelly or petroleum jelly.

As befits a good scholar, he first tested the ointment on himself. He inflicted the most varied injuries on himself, slashing his arms with all sorts of knives, holding his hands over a flame and pouring acid on them.

By 1870 he had a liniment that healed his burning cuts very quickly.

Initially, he sold the drug door-to-door in New York in small jars. He also handed out free samples. After some study he named the stuff 'vaseline': a combination of the German 'Wasser' and the Greek for oil: 'elaion'.

And also because in those days many medicines ended in 'ine'. The existing ointments quickly became rancid because they were composed of animal or vegetable fats. Vaseline, however, remained creamy even after years.

The success was overwhelming. After six months twelve carriages drove around in New York to meet the need. Doctors prescribed it, housewives used Vaseline to remove stains from furniture. Farmers discovered that it was perfect for nourishing the leather of saddles.

You could prevent machines from rusting. Painters smeared it on the floor to easily remove splashes of paint. Pharmacists used it as a base for all kinds of other ointments and creams. In short, Chesebrough's petroleum jelly was a panacea.

On May 14, 1878, he patented it. Even before the turn of the century, he also had a small factory in Tsarist Russia.

Chesebrough was a good businessman and made more than a living from his Vaseline. He didn't get as rich as the Rockefellers, but still.

He eventually found it quite normal that fishermen discovered that fish loved Vaseline and that the product was therefore excellent as bait, or that the women used it to remove their make-up. He himself emphasized that his product was above all healthy.

So for the last 35 years of his life he swallowed a large spoonful of Vaseline every day. And when he was sick, he rubbed it into his body. Chesebrough did not die until 1933. He was then 97 years old, living proof of the quality of his product.

Quatongues said he might have lived to be 107 without taking Vaseline.

Although the Vaseline jars have been produced by the Unilever group for decades, Chesebrough's name is still on them. The official recommendation is: 'For the whole family.

Ideal for rough skin, chapped lips, abrasions, sunburn, chilblains and chilblains and for babies with nappy irritation.'