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history of cod liver oil

Cod liver oil has a long history in northern Europe, but was not formally used in medicine until 1822. For over a hundred years, the use of cod liver oil remained common as a nutritional supplement. 

The oil’s health benefits stem from its high levels of vitamin A and D. Sunlight provides a large part of our vitamin D intake, so people in northern climates are at risk for vitamin D deficiency. This can lead to rickets, which causes the softening and deformation of the bones. Cod liver oil was used to help prevent this condition.

The use of cod liver oil has declined today. This is largely because scientists have discovered how to isolate specific vitamins. As a result, vitamin D has been added to milk products since the 1930s which has led to lower rates of vitamin D deficiency and decreased need for cod liver oil. 

Cod liver oil is also infamous for its bad smell and taste. It oxidizes when exposed to air, which causes the oil to turn rancid. Producers of the oil in the 19th century recommended ways to take it that would mask the taste. These ranged from mixing it with ketchup to drinking it in coffee. 


gerald s. doyle and cod liver oil

Cod liver oil was a part of life in Newfoundland for a long time. The northern climate meant vitamin D was a needed supplement and the cod fishery made Newfoundland a centre for cod liver oil production.

An important name in the Newfoundland industry was Gerald S. Doyle. He sold medicinal products in the outports of Newfoundland from the 1920s to the 1950s. A major element of his business was his brand of cod liver oil. He brought bottles of the oil to communities on his boat, the Miss Newfoundland, and promoted it in his newsletter and radio show.


These other ventures are related to another part of Doyle’s legacy. Gerald S. Doyle was a lover of traditional Newfoundland culture which he preserved by publishing books of local folk music. Classics like “Let Me Fish Off Cape St. Mary’s” remain popular today thanks to his efforts. 

You may also be familiar with the song “Cod Liver Oil” which was written by Johnny Burke, a St. John’s songwriter in the late 19th century. Some of his other songs include “The Night Paddy Murphy Died” and “The Kelligrews Soiree.” “Cod Liver Oil” tells of a man whose wife gets hooked on the stuff and the trouble this causes. 

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Miss Newfoundland, built by master boatbuilder Captain Harry Stone at the Stone Shipyard, in Monroe Trinity Bay, and skippered by Captain Willis Laite from Petley, Trinity Bay (photograph from the Gerald S. Doyle collection)


Image Source: NL Pharmacy Museum

personal testimonies

Many Newfoundlanders have stories to tell about their experiences with cod liver oil. Take a look at some of the cod liver oil memories that folks from across the province have shared with us. And if you have a story of your own, let us know in the message section below! 

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cod liver oil memory

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Thank You

Many thanks goes to our 2020 Canada Summer Jobs employees Brittany Jeans for her research and curation of the original museum exhibit. 

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