‘Dear Doctor’ Cards Cajoled MDs into Reading
As America continues to wrestle with opioids and the shameful role of some private firms in promoting their sale, use and deadly abuse, we once again examine the ethics of marketing pharmaceuticals, a trade that has a long, interesting philatelic history.
This form of “junque” mail, as I like to refer to it, is highly collectible and has become increasingly popular in recent years. The goal of all those who use “junque” mail is to keep it out of trash cans as long as possible and in the hands of potential customers. To avoid the dustbin and make the sale, of course, it needs to be eye-catching and (usually) appealing.
Without a doubt, the best-known of these efforts is the highly successful “Dear Doctor” postcard ad campaign waged by Abbott Laboratories from roughly 1954 to 1968. Even among pharmaceutical companies, Abbott was far from the first to utilize postcard marketing, which has left a fascinating philatelic footprint. The concept is simple and effective: a preprinted promotional message is mailed on a picture postcard from some exotic location to catch and hold the attention of the recipient until the message has been read.
Although there are many avenues of postcard marketing to explore, let’s start with the popular “Dear Doctor” cards, which have been studied extensively compared to the others. The moniker comes from the fact that virtually all of the cards open with the greeting “Dear Doctor.”
Abbott Laboratories was the inventor of Sodium Pentothal (their brand name for thiopental sodium), a powerful and fast-acting injected anesthetic that essentially replaced ether as a means of putting surgery patients “under” before beginning general anesthesia. This form of barbiturate was pioneered during the early 1930s by Ernest H. Volwiler, who worked for Abbott. First used on humans in 1934, I believe it was patented in 1939.
As a side note, in small doses, Pentothal leaves the recipient groggy and with lowered inhibitions (much like a few drinks). This led to limited and not particularly effective use as a so-called truth serum. While it is only one of several drugs tried for that purpose, it captured the imagination of Pop Culture and was identified by name as truth serum in everything from TV sitcoms and soap operas to movies and even in comic books.
During the early 1950s, with the patent for Sodium Pentothal due to lapse, according to several sources Abbott executives were keen to find some way to keep the name relevant and promote its use. Several have claimed credit for the idea of utilizing postcards, but suffice it to say Abbott tried the method and it took off like a rocket.
Tom Fortunato maintains a website about the cards (www.deardoctorpostcards.com), and may have studied them more closely than anyone else. He has identified at least 150 face-different cards mailed from 120 different countries, in at least nine different languages (although most are in English).
Figure 1 shows the address side of a Dutch card. The other side of the card is a photo of a narrow old Dutch street. The approach with each was similar: find an exotic location or image; create a message that tied in locally; and deliver the pitch that Pentothal is well-known and used worldwide.
Figure 1. Abbott Laboratories’ “Dear Doctor” postcard campaign mailed countless millions of cards to medical professionals during the 1950s and ‘60s. Shown here is an unusual example printed in Dutch.
Figure 2. This 1962 “Dear Doctor” card, mailed from Lundy Island, exclaimed that the firm had finally found a spot on earth without Sodium Pentothal.
Each was simply signed by “Abbott.” One exception is the 1964 card in Figure 2 from the United Kingdom’s Lundy Island (with stamps from both, and a bucolic scene on the picture side of three horses grazing with a lighthouse in the distance). The card reads as follows:
We’ve found it at last! A place without PENTOTHAL! Lundy Island is a self-governing dominion about 1.6 miles square; has its own stamps, puffin and half-puffin, and coins, but no hospitals. Happily, Lundy is about 12 miles away from another island – England – so the islanders don’t have to go far to receive the nest hospital care – and of course PENTOTHAL, the worldwide intravenous anesthetic of choice. Abbott.
In each mailing, many thousands of cards (usually about 250,000) were prepared and sent out to medical professionals. Due to the nature of these cards, they were not mailed out at airmail rates, but rather at surface and other discounted rates. In a few cases, the cards are the only known mail pieces representing these rates. In other cases, they serve as first day covers for some issues.
Figure 3. Since most of the Abbott cards were mailed using printed-matter surface rates, some, such as this 1959 Greenland hunting kayak card, display hard-to-find frankings.
Figure 3 shows the front and back of a Greenland “Dear Doctor” card representing a difficult rate.
From a philatelic market standpoint, most “Dear Doctor” cards sell in the $5 to $15 range, although some sell for much, much more. I’ve seen them sell for more than $100 and at least one of which I’m aware sold in 2012 for $298 on eBay.
In tracing the history of “Dear Doctor” cards, the earliest example I’ve found is on a pioneer postal card mailed April 4, 1898, from St. Louis, Mo., to London, England. Shown in Figure 4, the card (Scott UX14) is additionally franked with a 1¢ Trans-Mississippi stamp to meet the overseas rate and bears an April 14 London receiving mark.
Figure 4. The earliest “Dear Doctor” marketing card the author has been able to locate is this 1899 Antikamnia card, mailed from St. Louis, Missouri, to London, England.
The reverse of the card (addressed to “Dear Doctor”) is an illustrated notification of the mailing of an Antikamnia Chemical Co. “Foetal Chart and Parturition Calendar.” Antikamnia was an early pain reliever, taking its name from two Greek words that, combined, means “opposed to pain.” The company was one of the early pharmaceuticals to realize the value of advertising via direct mail.
Figure 5. Mailed within the U.S., this 1928 promotional postcard for “Lipoiodine” shows a view of the Alps of Switzerland, home of the drug maker’s parent company in Basel.
Of course, not all “Dear Doctor”-style drug marketing cards used that specific salutation. A number of pharmacies and drug companies from the early 20th century through the 1950s utilized mailings that featured picture postcards addressed to doctors or other medical professionals and served as drug advertisements. Among the earliest of these that were philosophically nearly identical to the Abbott cards is one shown below in Figure 5.
That card, from the Ciba Company in New York City, a U.S. office for “Chemische Industrie Basel” (Chemical Industries Basel), pictures the Swiss Alps and is addressed to a physician in Salt Lake City, Utah. Mailed March 8, 1928, the ad is for Lipoiodine, supposedly suitable for various “respiratory disorders.” Aside from being mailed in the United States, all other aspects are very similar to the later Abbott cards.
Figure 6. This 1954 “postcard” above — actually the front of a pharmaceutical brochure—has a near-counterfeit 2¢ Prexy, fabricated cancel and a printed handwritten-looking message on the address side at right.
A very unusual but related item appears in Figure 6. “Mailed” in 1954, the entire card—picture, message, stamp and postmark—are fabrications. The card was the cover of a pharmaceutical company’s promotional brochure and would have been mailed under separate cover. The “stamp” is such a close match to the then-current 2¢ Presidential series stamp (Scott 806), that it could have been considered a form of counterfeit. The address and message are printed as well and serve as a not-so-subtle advertisement for the pictured drug Ambodryl, an allergy medicine developed by Parke, Davis & Co.
“Ed” (the card’s fictional writer) wrote that he “Broke 90 twice” on the golf course because he wasn’t suffering from hay fever. (Of course, whomever Ed beat might insist that Ed won because Ed had been taking “performance-enhancing drugs!”)
Figure 7 shows a 1939 card mailed to promote a specific pharmacy in Bridgeport, Connecticut, rather than a specific drug. The message (addressed to “Dear Doctor”), is about choosing the right pharmacy, noting that while a physician’s skill lies with the treatment of disease, the pharmacist’s responsibility is in the accurate compounding of the prescription using ingredients of the highest quality, as shown on the picture side.
Figure 7. This 1939 “Dear Doctor” card promotes a local pharmacy, not a specific drug.
Figure 8. This 1950s “Dear Doctor” card, mailed by Frederick Stearns & Co. rather than by Abbott Laboratories, is a copycat card.
Inevitably, after the Abbott campaign became such as success, many copycat campaigns followed. For example, the Figure 8 card (with an unreadably faint postmark) was mailed from Sudan bearing a Camel Post definitive, using virtually the same approach as Abbot. In this case, the card picturing three “women outside Omdurman” was promoting a pharmaceutical sales agent from Stearns (Frederick Stearns & Co.), a Detroit pharmaceutical company whose heyday was in the early 20th century. The card would have likely been mailed no later than early 1955, as the physician to whom it is addressed to died suddenly on March 28 of that year.
Figure 9. Mailed from Montego Bay, Jamaica, the 1989 card above (one of a pair) extols the virtues of the miracle weight-loss drug Methedrine (which had plenty of problems all its own as we now know).
The Figure 9 card is one of two different I’ve seen from 1959. The Montego Bay card shown was mailed from Jamaica on November 19, 1959, the other from Martinique on November 25, bearing a definitive from France. Both cards promote a nasty little weight-loss drug created by Burroughs Wellcome & Co. called “Methedrine” (methamphetamine hydrochloride).
Yup, it is that “meth.” Methedrine could not only help with weight loss, but it also could give you more energy and create ‘the right attitude.’ Optimism and cooperation are encouraged by Methedrine,” according to at least one magazine advertisement — not to mention the Rolling Stones’ 1966 hit, “Mother’s Little Helper.”
The follow-up card from Martinique not only promoted Methedrine, but also Marezine (cyclizine), which is still in use to treat motion sickness and other forms of nausea.
Figure 10. Not all “Dear Doctor” cards were exotic. This pill postcard relied on local pharmacies to mail it to local physicians they knew.
However, not all “Dear Doctor” cards were as exotic as Abbott’s or some of the others shown here. Some were purely functional. The 2¢ postal card shown in Figure 10 is a simple printed card promoting McNeils’ then-new drug Butibel. Rather than mass mailing to thousands of doctors across the country, this “Dear Doctor” card apparently was sent to pharmacies, which would then attach their own names to them and mail the cards to local doctors they knew.
With an increased focus during the 1960s and ‘70s on medical journal advertising and pharmaceutical “detail men” who visited physicians’ offices with samples and other literature (before direct-to-consumer ads took over during the 1980s), the need for direct mail drug marketing dwindled. The “Dear Doctor” card approach eventually died, leaving us with a fertile area of mail marketing that is ripe for additional research.
Editor's Note: The “Picture Postcards and Medicinal Marketing” article was originally published in the June 2019 issue of The American Philatelist. We are bringing the archives of The American Philatelist to the Newsroom - to read back issues of The American Philatelist, click here and scroll down to the Back Issues section.