Dr. Thompson’s Celebrated Eye Water

June 11, 2014 · Collections ·
Letter from Joseph Thompson to his uncle Isaac Thompson, 1842. Ms 101872

Letter from Joseph Thompson to his uncle Isaac Thompson, 1842. Ms 101872

Joseph Thompson of Bridgeport, Connecticut, wrote a letter to his uncle Dr. Isaac Thompson of New London, Connecticut, in May, 1842. Joseph related the peaceful death of two of his sisters within a week of each other and how devastated he felt. His mother, he mentions, is also dying.

While the above tale is a sad one, what is really interesting about this letter is the recipient. Isaac Thompson was a fairly well-known pharmacist who sold various “patent” medicines including “Dr. Isaac Thompson’s Celebrated Eye Water”. Thompson introduced this remedy in 1795 and it was continuously available for nearly 200 years in Connecticut and the country. In fact it had the largest sale in the U.S. of any topical ophthalmic preparation in the 19th century.

Isaac Thompson was born in Stratford, Connecticut, on August 24, 1775, the son of William and Mehitable Ufford Thompson. He removed to New London as a youth and entered the drug business. Although the product implies he was a doctor,Thompson was not a physician but a druggist, and had no formal training. He sold his business in 1830 to his son-in-law John L. Thompson of Troy, New York. Isaac remained in New London engaged in a variety of business pursuits until his death in 1852.

Advertising card for Dr. Thompson's Celebrated Eye Water. Eastern North Carolina digital archive.

Advertising card for Dr. Thompson’s Celebrated Eye Water. Eastern North Carolina digital archive.

The first public advertisement of Dr. Isaac Thompson’s Celebrated Eye Water appeared in the Connecticut Courant, January 16, 1811. He touted his concoction as quick and efficient treatment for all common complaints of the eye, with the exception of cataracts or incurable blindness. It wasn’t until the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 that the active ingredients of the Eye Water were revealed: opium, alcohol and zinc sulphate. Not something that would be approved by the USDA today.

An interesting side note, New London was the site of the first ophthalmic or eye infirmary in the United States.


Thanks to George Bresnick of St. Paul, Minnesota, for providing the information about “Dr”. Thompson. The letter from Joseph to his uncle can be viewed in the Waterman Research Center by requesting Ms 101872.

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