The meatpacking empire of Philip Armour and his brilliant scions found a use for every scrap of carcass leftover from production: cheeks and trimmings became sausage; gut, bone and ligament boiled down to gelatin; redder, bloodier entrails were squeezed into cubes of bullion; even bones were burnt to become carbon black. But thyroids were dug out and kept separate. These butterfly-shaped glands release a master regulator, an iodine-heavy molecular compound that can stoke or snuff the slow combustion of the human body. First isolated in 1891 by George Redmane Murray, after Murray used thyroid to miraculously revive hypothyroid patients, Armour began refining and selling the gland in pill form as a patent medicine. Occasionally Armour Thyroid bottles predating the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 turn up at auction. The earliest are made of clay. Simple packaging belies the potency of its contents and the violence of its extraction. A fingernail-deep inscription on the palm-sized clay bottle with the long bulging neck (two bulges—a miniature gourd) and slender belly is beginning to wear, but its contours are still legible—it reads: Armour Brand Desiccated Thyroid. The white glaze underneath is as new and cool to the touch. The stopper is also made of clay, a top hat shaped plug, a sturdy thing of real mass stamped crisply with details the better to help a druggist pluck it from a drawer and present it to a patient. With a tug, the stopper comes free. There were once pills inside but these have long crumbled and lost their potency, and all that pours from its narrow spout is a puff of ruddy, grainy dust—the pulverized goiters of pigs, slaughtered one hundred and ten years ago, reduced in soot black cauldrons large enough to fit a steer, poured and dried in trays then ground and squeezed into pill form. Armour Thyroid is sold today in plastic bottles with "childproof" closure compress caps. The pills retain their ruddy tint.
-- James McGirk has a BA and an MFA from Columbia University. He writes a monthly column for 3QuarksDaily and his bylines have appeared in TIME, Foreign Policy, More Intelligent Life, and other publications. One of his short stories has been published by The Drum and another will appear in the next Fence. For more information please visit: jamesmcgirk.com.
Art: Bottles by Maria Kondratiev.