The pandemic of bubonic plague in the mid-1890s, which killed more than 12 million people worldwide, provided the stage for carbolic acid to rise to unprecedented use, despite the warnings of scientists. The fuel was often xenophobia, stigmatizing non-Western peoples as unique spreaders of infection.
Pandemic uncertainty produced horrific results
British health officers forced countless indigenous peoples in port cities in Asia and Africa into dipping vats of carbolic acid. Dipping was a veterinary practice used to control skin diseases in cattle and sheep. But in a moment of pandemic uncertainty, Western governments turned to carbolic for the cure. It was violent, harmful, and oppressive.
A surviving photograph published in the British weekly illustrated periodical "Black and White" from 1898 in Karachi provides a rare glimpse: "All natives who are suspect of having been in contact with sources of contagion are required to visit one of these tanks, and to take a dip in the water," the article noted, "the natives do not, as a rule, take kindly to the process, but it is insisted on." Dipping humans in vats of skin-burning carbolic acid was undoubtedly a dark moment in modern history, but it wasn't an isolated event.
In the early 20th century, American health officers erected disinfection stations along the 2,000-mile border between California to Texas. During a particularly explosive outbreak of typhus fever in 1915, US physicians ordered all individuals attempting to enter American soil to strip naked and be doused with disinfectant. There was again backlash amongst those submitted to such intrusive practices, as the not so well-known 1917 Bath Riots at the Santa Fe Bridge demonstrate.
Though the pandemic died down, the carbolic fervor did not, despite medical evidence that carbolic acid was injurious and in some cases fatal. During the same years of the early 20th century, which also saw the rise of the 1918 influenza pandemic, mass-marketed household disinfectants emerged on the market. Crude carbolic was now sold with clearly-marked "poison," and "not to be taken" but a host of lookalike products emerged: powders, sprays, liquids, carbolic soap ("Lifebuoy's soap), toothpaste (Calvert's) and the snake-oil products like Carbolic Smoke Ball used to "treat" influenza.