Willis Kilmer And The Spurious World Of Herbal Medicine

Tucked away in Vestal, a small town on the southern fringes of New York, is a small pet cemetery known as Whispering Pines. This is the final resting place of ‘The Exterminator’, one of the greatest racehorses in the annals of American horse racing. When he died in 1943, it is said of ‘Old Bones’, as he was fondly known, that “no other horse to date was enjoyed with more genuine affection by the fans of racing.”

Which is more than can be said of the man who owned and trained him, Willis Kilmer. When the multi-millionaire businessman died at the age of 71 in 1940, an aunt overheard a news reporter lamenting his lost opportunity of meeting the tycoon. The elderly relative disabused the journalist of his sentimental notions, remarking sharply that her nephew “was not a nice person”.

In his spats and a fedora, Willis Sharp Kilmer epitomised the classic early twentieth century business tycoon, portrayed so brilliantly on the big screen by James Cagney. For men like him, money and power were close family to be flaunted; ethics was a distant cousin you humoured. Establishment families such as the Vanderbilts were part of your social circle.

Willis ‘collected’ houses and horse studs from New York to Vermont, commuting between them in a chauffeur-driven car or his own private yacht. Like all self-made men, he also wanted to be remembered. Today residents in his home town of Binghampton, New York can hardly forget him as they play golf at the club he created. The local hospital pathology laboratory bears his name.

For Willis, the path to riches was as calculated as it was meteoric. Like his equine asset, Willis ruthlessly crushed all opposition. And he started with his own family. Just a few years after joining the family firm as head of sales and marketing, he ousted his uncle Andral as head of the company in a hostile takeover. Hardly the way to thank the man who has given you your big break after leaving Cornell University. And a shabby way to treat someone who has created one of the most successful ranges of proprietary herbal medicines on sale in America. But Willis was never the humble employee, in awe of his uncle’s achievements. Nor was he a botanist like his benefactor. He was, however, a consummate salesman with a big personality, who wasted no time in implementing the new marketing ideas he had learned at college.

Willis was astute. He was one of the first to embrace the concept of a brand and he did so relentlessly. He ensured that his uncle’s profile appeared on the label of every medicine bottle the company sold; there wasn’t a leaflet, sign or poster that didn’t bear his image. Willis made the Kilmer brand unmistakable by giving it bright orange packaging. A customer in a drugstore seeking a bottle of the company’s most famous product, Swamp Root, merely had to look for the familiar kidney-shaped bottle. He utilised what was there and improved on it. The humble almanac became something more than a useful guide to moon cycles and planting times. Under Willis’ direction, Kilmer products featured on every page, with a guide to the ailments they could cure.

Willis was also bold. He took the traditional model of advertising locally and developed it nationally. To achieve this widespread coverage, he needed the right ‘vehicle.’ Providentially, his father-in-law was one of the sharpest brains in the newly emerging industry of newspaper advertising. Here was a powerful, well-connected man, running a business that could reach large numbers of people very quickly. Willis used the family connection shamelessly.

Soon the Kilmer brand featured in print across the country. He wasn’t shy about using company money in the process. But it all paid off. Rapidly expanding sales meant that within two years his uncle’s modest dispensary had moved to gleaming new premises spread over five floors. The range of products had expanded to 18, with production met by a bottling facility boasting an output of 2,000 bottles an hour, and sales had extended to Europe and Australia.