A Victorian era medicine comes back to public attention

With the flu season at our door accompanied by the annual urgings to get flu shots and messages around Covid boosters, it is interesting to see a piece of New Zealand medicinal history back in the media gaze.

Lane's Emulsion poster with women of different ages smiling as they take Lane's Emulsion.
Lane’s Emulsion promotion. Image: Suppliedexpand/collapse

Ted Lane, born in Oamaru in 1868, trained as a chemist. He had an idea to create ‘the perfect emulsion’. In the 19th century there were many chemists who had their own health tonic recipes to help people with various ailments. Lane was looking for something special.

After years of trying, he achieved success with a product that became known as Lane’s Emulsion. The main ingredients were cod liver oil and beechwood creosote, as well as salts of lime and soda, brandy as a solvent, and various other secret ingredients including cinnamon and saccharin, with egg yolks as an emulsifier to bind it all together.

The resulting opaque creamy emulsion with a distinctive smoky-fishy-spice flavour was marketed as a general tonic, as well as a blood purifier. It became a cure-all for TB, croup, bronchitis, asthma, catarrh, and other ailments of the throat and lung.

Lane’s Emulsion became a healthy mainstay medicine for generations of New Zealanders and even achieved popularity in Australia.

Ted Lane had a factory from 1908 in Oamaru’s historic precinct, which still bears the Lane’s Emulsion trademark and motto ‘It’s Famous Because It’s Good.’ Recently, media have been encouraging visitors to Oamaru to check it out at the Harbour St Bakery and Deja Moo Ice cream Parlour.

The main ingredients were cod liver oil and beechwood creosote.

Lane also opened a branch factory in Melbourne in the 1920s generating international sales in Britain and around the Pacific. The old Lane’s Emulsion sign below the famous Timeball Station in Christchurch remained into the 1960s, when it was apparently burnt down in an arson attack. 

Ted Lane passed away in 1947 but his business continued with its famous brand until the last bottle of Lane’s Emulsion came off the production line in 1984.  

Crombie and Price of Oamaru, who own the business, still hold the rights to the recipe, with an approved Lane’s Emulsion flavoured ice cream released by Deja Moo, minus cod liver oil and creosote, but apparently still considered very medicinal to their customers.

- David Watt