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Cod Liver Oil


Mankind has consumed marine liver oils for thousands of years and cod liver oil for at least hundreds of years.  Hippocrates first recorded the medicinal use of fish oils, and the first century naturalist Pliny the Elder recorded the use of dolphin liver oil as a remedy for chronic skin eruptions.

In 1848, the British physician John Hughes Bennett observed that cod liver oil had been used from time immemorial by the fishing populations of Scotland, Sweden, and Norway for its general medicinal and strengthening properties.  For centuries before producing the oil itself, the British used the blackish residue left behind by
barrelled cod livers as a balm.
  In 1766, a Manchester Infirmary began prescribing ingestion of the oil for rheumatism after a patient cured herself of the disease on two occasions by ingesting her topical treatment.  The infirmary thereafter used 50 to 60 gallons of cod liver oil per year, and after comparing its use to that of a placebo in a number of individual patients, the physician Percival added it to the British Pharmacopoeia in 1771

Harvesting Cod Livers

Shark liver oil was originally used by people in Northern Europe as a folk remedy to cure everything from the common cold to digestive disturbances.  Extracted from the large, oversaturated livers of deep sea sharks, shark liver oil has recently become a popular supplement, which is primarily marketed as an alternative treatment for cancer.

Cod Liver Oil has been used for centuries by the poor of the north of England, Scotland, Ireland, Northern Europe, Iceland and Newfoundland to fuel their lamps, soften leather and make textiles. It was also used in animal feed, and perhaps the resulting glossy coats and healthy constitution of their animals encouraged people to consume Cod Liver Oil themselves.  In fishing communities, its role as a medicine predates other uses. Fishermen used to rub it on aching joints and troublesome skin conditions. Code Liver Oil is absorbed through the skin, but very slowly, so people probably thought they would get quicker results from drinking it.  In original form Cod Liver Oil was treacle black and foul smelling and could be viewed as a vile tonic. To fight colds when out at sea some fishermen are reputed to have eaten raw fish livers soaked between two slices of bread.

The history of using Cod Liver Oil dates back to the 1800 around the European Coast line.  It first became established in the fishing communities of Scotland, Iceland, Norway and Greenland several centuries ago where they used it to protect themselves against the rigour in the intense cold that they were exposed to.  Our grandparents are fond of telling stories of taking their daily dose of Cod Liver Oil  to relieve such complaints as rheumatism, aching muscles and stiff joints.  During the 1890s, it was commonly used to treat rickets, which affected 9 out of 10 malnourished children.  Cod liver oil was traditionally manufactured by filling a wooden barrel with fresh cod livers and seawater and allowing the mixture to ferment for up to a year before removing the oil.

Rickets, a disease of vitamin D deficiency, is rarely confronted by the practicing pediatrician today. At the turn of the 20th century, rickets was rampant among the poor children living in the industrialized and polluted northern cities. With the discovery of vitamin D and the delineation of the anti-rachitic properties of cod-liver oil by the 1930s, it became possible to not only treat but also eradicate rickets. Rickets was a common disease in 17th century England. Frances Glisson's treatise on rickets published in 1650, a glorious contribution to English medicine, described the clinical and anatomic features of rickets in great detail. The exact etiology of rickets had been elusive until the 1920s. During the Glissonian era, rickets was a mysterious disease. By the late 19th and early 20th century, faulty diet or faulty environment (poor hygiene, lack of fresh air and sunshine) or lack of exercise was implicated in its etiology. Animal experiments, appreciation of folklore advocating the benefits of cod-liver oil, and the geographical association of rickets to lack of sunshine were all relevant factors in the advancement of knowledge in the conquest of this malady.

Though the process in which the Cod Liver was produced is not the same yet it is interesting to see back at how implementing Cod Liver Oil as being a supplement began. Liver was harvested on cod fish and the fishermen use to consume these as full livers. It was common training to consume cod liver as being a preventive measure against disease that plagued the fishing communities Cod Liver oil acts as an anti-inflammatory and can thus help to lessen the issues of many diseases attributed to inflammation. Cod liver oil can even be used to help deal with the symptoms of rheumatism, arthritis and fibromyalgia just to name a few.

 “Cod liver oil is obtained from the livers of the common cod fish. There are three varieties according to the mode of extraction, known as pale, light brown and dark brown. . . the pale is the most palatable. . . . as a remedy for consumption and other constitutional diseases of an exhausting nature, cod liver oil takes high rank. It is really more of a food than a remedy, its power of producing fat is well known. In scrofulous diseases generally, hip joint diseases, white swelling of the knee, caries of the spine, lumbar and psoas abcesses, rickets, etc., cod liver oil will nearly always do good. It is also useful in skin diseases, some forms of eye troubles and syphilis. Young children who have grown weak from diarrhoea in summer, and who seem unable to assimilate the food given them, can often be saved by rubbing cod liver oil into their skin. The common dose of cod liver oil is from one to two tablespoons, three times daily.”

During the 1930s, two American scientists discovered that there was a difference between the fatty acids based on their origin. They research showed that Omega 3 fatty acids, the fatty acids derived from fish or vegetables sources were different from Omega 6 fatty aids which are derived from Linolenic Acids. They originally had Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids lumped together. They believed that both were needed by the body; however, the body was unable to produce them itself.

Cod Liver Oil also has supplies of Vitamin D and A. It is very nutritious and is extracted from the lever of the fish. On the other hand, regular fish oil is extracted from the tissues of oily fish. The contents are almost the same but lesser in quantity.  Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium and is used to maintain healthy joints and bones. The body naturally produces vitamin D; however, the body needs to have a certain level of sunshine exposure to produce the amount of vitamin D required.  Some people believe that you should use Cod Liver Oil in the winter months, when direct natural sunlight is harder to come by and to use Fish Oil during the summer month, to avoid over doing the amount of vitamin D.

Processing Cod Livers at Sea
This oil was made through a long fermenting process– the fishermen would throw the livers of the cod into a large wooden barrel, add sea water, and allow the mixture to ferment over time. This natural fermentation process could take as long as a year, and the communities continued to use fermented cod liver oil on a regular basis because of the health benefits that they experienced from the oil.

Producing cod liver oil in the traditional way, is by fermentation. In Roman times, long before refrigeration, fish guts were placed in a barrel with sea water and allowed to ferment. What came out of the barrel was a watery fermented fish sauce called garam, widely used as a seasoning (a precursor to Worcestershire sauce). The oil floated to the top and was collected carefully. This fermented fish oil was undoubtedly the civilized world’s first health elixir, reserved for the soldiers and nobility. It is said that the soldiers refused to march without their daily ration of liquidum.

South Sea Islanders put great store in shark liver oil - enduring considerable danger to procure the sharks even though other, less dangerous-to-catch seafood was plentiful. To prepare the oil, they put the livers inside the leathery stomachs of the shark and hung them in the trees for several months. As it fermented, the oil gradually came out of the livers and filled the hanging stomachs.  The yield is about one litre per shark.

A description of traditional European cod liver oil processing is provided in an article entitled “Cod-Liver Oil and Chemistry,” published in London, 1895.  As soon as the fishermen reach the Pier, and separate the livers and roes, they sell the fish and brought the livers and roes home. In front of their homes were ranged a number of empty barrels into which the livers and roes were placed, separately. The fishermen did not trouble to separate the gall-bladder from the liver, but simply stowed away the harvest of each day’s fishing, and repeatedthe process each time they returned from the sea, until the barrel is full, when it is headed up and a fresh one commenced.

This is continued up to the end of the season. rill all barrels have filled. The first of these, it may be noted, date from January, and the last from the beginning of April, and they seldom find time to open their liver barrels before the month of May. By this time the livers are, of course, in an advanced state of putrefaction. The process of disintegration results in the bursting of the walls of the hepatic cells and the escape of a certain proportion of the oil. This rises to the top, and is drawn off.

“Provided that not more than two or three weeks have elapsed from the closing of the barrel to its being opened, and if during that time the weather has not been too mild, the oil is of a light yellow colour, and is termed raw medicinal oil. As may be supposed, however, very little oil of this quality is obtained. Indeed, as a rule there is so little of it that the fishermen do not take the trouble to collect it separately. Nearly all the barrels yield an oil of a more or less deep yellow to brownish colour: this is drawn off, and the livers are left to undergo further putrefaction. When a sufficient quantity of oil has again risen to the surface, the skimming is repeated, and this process is continued until the oil becomes a deeper shade of brown. The product collected up to this point is known as pale oil.  By this time the month of June has generally been reached, and with the warmer weather the putrefaction is considerably accelerated, and the oil now drawn off is of a dark brown colour, and is collected by itself. It is rather misleadingly called light brown oil.  When no more can be squeezed out, the remainder is thrown into an iron caldron and heated over an open fire. By this process, the last rests of oil are extracted from the hepatic tissues, which float about in the oil like hard resinous masses.  In order to fully carry out the extraction, it is necessary to raise the temperature considerably above the boiling point of water.  The oil prepared in this way is very dark, almost black, and with a greenish fluorescence in reflected light. In thin layers and by transmitted light it shows a brown colour, and it is therefore termed brown oil.

The processing methods introduced to Norway in the 1850s resulted in a much purer, consistently light-colored oil made from fresh, not putrefied livers, considerably more palatable in terms of taste and smell. It is noted however, that the “brown oils are actually used to a certain extent for medicinal purposes till the present day.”

Vikings would get livers from the cod and every house would have a drum full of fermented livers and the oil that rose to the top was used for everything from heat, to cooking oil, to a condiment, to using the oil as fuel for a wick.  They would take spoonful upon leaving their homes.

Virol - Malt Extract with Cod Liver Oil

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Last modified: 01/09/2013