Homemade Vitamin Pills

JOHN WHITE is a former Boston and Washington newspaperman now working in the State Department. He served as navigator in U.S. Marine Corps planes throughout the Pacific war, and is the author of “The Navigator,”which appeared in Accent on Living in October, 1944.


I DIDN’T start making my own vitamin pills because I distrusted the big companies. I read in a book on “medical self-help" that a man is a fool to buy vitamins from the drugstore. The book said you could make your own, just as good and much cheaper.

I asked old Doc, at our corner drugstore, please to order me everything I would need to mix my own vitamin pills. He was surprised. He said, What in the world are you up to? I told him. He said an analytical balance would cost about $100. So I called the Bureau of Standards and they told me, unofficially, of a junk shop. There I got a beautiful set of hand scales and some gram weights for $3.50.

Doe procured a pestle and mortar, a little funnel, a spoon, and small quantities of iron gluconate, liver extract, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pyridoxine, brewer’s yeast, and ascorbic acid. He thought little of my project but was curious. He reminded me that I would need capsules, and gave me a hundred.

That night I set up shop.

I put all the chemicals in a row, placed according to size of bottle. I got out the scales and prepared to measure. I found that the recipe in the medical self-help book was all in ounces. My weights were in grams. It was quite some time before I found, in the back of a dictionary, that one gram equals 0.03527 U.S. avoirdupois ounces. It was even later when I had translated the recipe into grams. I went to bed.

The next day I thought that before I began taking these energy vitamins I should give myself a “before" test. I tried to devise one. I jumped up and down off a chair twenty times and took my pulse. It was 88. Ordinarily it is 72. I observed myself. “Slightly bald — plump — overcautious driver — poor memory,”I noted.

With a gratifying feeling of getting back to nature, of “doing something with your hands,”I weighed out the various little dabs of chemicals and poured them into the mortar. They made a delicately pinkish-orange mess. I stirred with the pestle, using a clockwise rotation. (I am lefthanded.) That stirring was a very good sensation — as if one were spinning the web of destiny, like the Greek Fates.

I then poured the mixture onto a big piece of paper and began to encapsule it. This proved more difficult. So difficult, in fact, that I began to entertain notions of leaving the powder free and taking it mingled with butter as a sandwich spread, or dissolved in grape juice, or even frozen into popsicles. Finally, however, I learned to stab the big end of the capsule into the heap of powder and then run the little end up onto it, rather than shove them at each other repeatedly until they were full. After that things went faster. At last it was all capsuled. I had 100 capsules full of energy-giving vitamin-B complex. I swallowed three of them. And every day thereafter for a month I took three more. (After a month, the medical self-help book said, you get up on a “plateau” of energy and don’t need so many vitamins to keep you up there.)

I do believe they helped. My hair didn’t come back and my memory grew no better and my pulse still went up to about 88 if I jumped on that chair. But I didn’t feel so sleepy all the time, I had a better appetite and more enthusiasm. Under the influence of these vitamins, indeed, I bethought me of a method of cataloguing fingerprints, I mastered the art of writing my name on grains of rice (a friend had been badgering me for years to try that), and I figured out a way of seeing who is at the door without becoming visible yourself - I got a periscope from war surplus and stuck it out of the kitchen window.

I even went into the vitamin business. I told my friends of my enterprise, and how good it made me feel and how much money I saved, and sure enough several of them wanted me to make them some vitamin pills. This I did.

I calculated the cost — not counting original outlay for plant - and because I was fortunate enough (after the first batch) to be able to get my raw ingredients wholesale from a veterinary, I found that one of my capsules cost me 2.373 cents. At the drugstore the same kind cost $3.45 for a bottle of 34 capsules, or 4.107 cents per capsule. I therefore charged halfway between what they cost me and the drugstore price. (Occasionally a chain drugstore cuts rates and sells vitamins as cheaply as I make them. No matter — such sales are fleeting.)

My customers were pleased. Especially when I got onto the trick of using red capsules — they looked much more professional and they cost no more.

Then it was suggested I might poison somebody.

So I wrote to Merck, Eli Lilly, and E. R. Squibb, the companies from which I got my ingredients, and asked if there were any possibilities that any of the ingredients, singly or in combination, might “cause harm" if used in overlarge doses I explained what I was doing.

Lilly replied that “Lilly literature is written in a medical textbook style and is therefore restricted to members of the medical and closely allied professions.” Merck never answered. But Squibb reassured me. They said what I was doing was “exceedingly complex” but mentioned no dangers. They gave me a list of books to read.

It was then suggested by a friend that my modest business was illegal. “Violation of Pure Food and Drug Act. . . .”

I devoted an entire morning to the telephone.

I called Pure Food and Drugs. (In Washington you can find anything you want if you just look long enough under “Federal Government" in the telephone book.)

A voice said, Nothing under the law prevents the buying and mixing of chemicals, but if sold, such mixtures must meet laws of labeling and composition as stated on labels. Furthermore, added the voice, the law authorizes inspectors to visit your plant. Where is your plant?

I said, Oh no no it wasn’t my plant, I was calling for a friend, and anyway it wasn’t important. The voice grew more interested, and said my friend had better check with Narcotics.

I called Narcotics.

Voice: Call the Corporation Counsel.

I did.

Voice: You tell that man who wants to make vitamins to come on down to narcotics squad and learn what vitamins are.

I called Narcotics again.

Voice: . . . derivatives of opium or coca leaves — any drugs made by synthesizing to resemble them . . . morphine, heroin, cocaine, codeine. . . .

I gave up trying to straighten that out and called the Board of Pharmacy.

Voice: This is the wrong source of information.

I called the Commission on Licensure. By this time I was adept at stating the hypothetical case of the friend who was curious, just curious.

Voice: Good night! Call Narcotics!

I called the District Marshal.

Voice: Call other authorities. We don’t handle that at all.

I called the District Attorney.

Voice: Spike — take three . . . .

Yes? Oh. I don’t know. Call the Corporation Counsel.

At last I called Pure Food and Drugs again. A woman answered this time, took a great interest in the case of my friend who was just curious. The woman was curious too. How does your friend think he is going to make any money? she asked me.

I said indeed I didn’t know.

She said once they had a similar case of a man who tried to sell homemade toothpaste. It was all right, but it cost him more time and trouble and money than regular store-bought brands.

I thought, and it occurred to me I was in the same fix.

I have given up making vitamin pills for my friends. I still make them for myself, when the mood comes over me — it is a good feeling, that grinding of the pestle in the mortar. I swallow one once in a while. But not regularly.

I feel fine. Still slightly bald, plump, overcautious as a driver, with a poor memory. Still sleepy.

A couple of back fillings dropped out of my left-side teeth the other day. But the dentist said it was probably not due to vitamins. You just bite too hard, he said.