VanHaren: Goiter pills, cod liver and castor oil were once part of daily life


Roger VanHaren

It’s funny how our memories work, isn’t it? Some of the goofy stuff that gets stored in our brains comes galloping back to us at weird times. And it’s hard to figure out why we remember them in the first place, not to mention why they come back to us when they do.

I recently had one of those goofy recollections. If you’re around my age, you probably remember goiter pills. At least that’s what we called them when I was a kid.

Every Thursday when I was in grade school, we were treated to chocolate-flavored iodine pills for the thyroid. Well, at least there was hint of chocolate in the rather strange taste. The goiter pills came in a round cardboard cylinder sort of like an oatmeal carton, and one of the “monitors” would walk down the aisles of the classroom and put one pill on each desk, and we were expected to eat them. Some kids liked them and others hated them, so sometimes the kids who hated them would sneak them to their friends who liked them. (Marilyn says she gave hers to a kid named Noah Rasmussen.) No goiters for Noah; he was double-protected!

Why did we have to take them? Well, that was before salt was iodized. Back then in Wisconsin, we didn’t have enough natural iodine in our diet because people didn’t eat much seafood (Friday night fish fries don’t count as seafood! It has to be from saltwater.) Today, we have iodized salt, so the iodine deficiency is not a problem anymore.

Iodine’s primary importance to the human body is related to the thyroid gland, which uses it to produce thyroxine and triiodothyronine, two hormones that control the metabolism. A diet deficient in iodine can lead to a swelling of the thyroid, known as a “goiter.” One of my aunts had a goiter, and I sure didn’t want to look like that, so I took my goiter pills!

For me, cod liver oil is another unpleasant childhood memory. When you’re 10 years old, cod liver oil is no laughing matter. Every morning, before we could escape, my mom would call my sister Joyce and me to the fridge and take out a large ugly bottle of Watkins or Rawleigh cod liver oil with a greasy label, and we had to choke down a full tablespoon of that foul-tasting stuff. I know she did it for “your own good” (sort of like Aunt Polly in “Tom Sawyer”), and now I am thankful for her exacting discipline and wisdom, but, boy, I hated that stuff!

As its name suggests, cod liver oil comes from the liver of a codfish. Duh! This yellowish oil is rich in vitamin A and vitamin D and it was long used as a preventive and cure for rickets in Baltic and Scandinavian countries, where fish is a dietary staple. My mom didn’t want me to get rickets, so I took it. How come you didn’t have to take any, Mom?

Some of my friends would tell me how their mothers would mix the stinky oil with orange juice or peanut butter, but nothing could really disguise that foul-tasting awful stuff. Cod liver oil is kind of like advice – easier to give than to take.

Along those same lines — remember castor oil? It was kind of like drinking WD-40 to lubricate the gastro-intestinal tract — to ease constipation and/or induce vomiting. Nice topics, huh? Castor oil was the greenish extract of a large tropical plant, and it had been used for generations of home-remedy lovers. Remember “The Little Rascals” movies? Any Little Rascals fan knows that castor oil is a notoriously ghastly-tasting liquid. Some kids’ moms mixed the castor oil with cold orange juice to make it more palatable for their kids. Didn’t work! The mind (and tummy) reels.

I had rheumatic fever as a kid, and castor oil was reputed to have soothing effects on the painful joints and inflammation caused by that disorder. Supposedly, my rheumatic fever was caused by tonsillitis. Aha! Castor oil was supposed to help that, too! Double trouble! I also had to choke down huge sulfa tablets. Yuk!

Mom also concocted some kind of cough syrup that was made with onions, lemons, honey, and vinegar, I think. That might not be right, but it’s close. But, you know what, as awful as that sounds, I didn’t really mind that. I also didn’t mind the old Vicks Vapo-Rub chest massages and the eye-watering fumes that emanated from my clothes when I had a cold or the croupe. (Do people still get croupe? It’s such an old-fashioned-sounding word!)

So, anyway, like I said before, the memory is a strange tool. Some of the things that get stored up there lead us to strange reminiscences, don’t they?

Contact Roger VanHaren at