James Cook Ayer

From Kook Science

J. C. Ayer
J. C. Ayer - portrait.jpg

From America's Successful Men of Affairs (1896)

Born James Cook Ayer
5 May 1818(1818-05-05)
Groton (Ledyard), New London Co., Connecticut
Died 3 July 1878 (60)
Winchendon, Worcester Co., Massachusetts
Burial Lowell Cemetery, Lowell, Middlesex Co., Mass.
Occupation(s) Pharmacist

James Cook Ayer (May 5, 1818 - July 3, 1878) was an American pharmaceutical chemist and patent medicine manufacturer, the founder of J. C. Ayer Co. of Lowell, Massachusetts, producers of his namesake Ayer's Ague Cure and Ayer's Sarsaparilla, among many others. Ayer has been argued to have been one of the most successful patent medicine men of his age, amassing a fortune of some $15 million dollars in the course of his business, and the town of Ayer, Massachusetts was named for him, in large part owing to his generosity in financing construction of their town hall. This financial success, however, did not translate into the political success that he sought later in his life, as Ayer ran unsuccessfully as the Republican candidate for the Massachusetts's 7th District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives during the 1874 U. S. elections, a failure that has been suggested as being a cause for his later poor health and confinement to an asylum in the final years of his life.[1]



  • Hall, Henry, ed. (1896), "Dr. James Cook Ayer", America's Successful Men of Affairs, 2, New York: New York Tribune, p. 38-40 

    DR. JAMES COOK AYER, famous as a manufacturer of proprietary medicines, and as an organizer and financier, was born May 5, 1818, in that part of the town of Groton, Conn., which now bears the name of Ledyard. In his veins ran the blood of old American families, distinguished for personal character and active interest in public affairs. Frederick Ayer, his father, who served as a soldier of the War of 1812 and died in 1825, was a son of Elisha Ayer, a hero of the American Revolution. The mother of Dr. Ayer was Persis Cook Ayer, who died in Lowell, Mass., July 23, 1880.

    Although he lost his father by death, early in life, the subject of this memoir was anxious for a liberal education and obtained it in his own way. An arrangement was made, whereby he removed to Lowell, Mass., and there he attended the grammar school, going later to the Westford academy and Lowell high school. He then prosecuted alone for three years the course of studies prescribed at Harvard college, having the advantage of tutorship by the Rev. Dr. Edson in Latin only. An active mind led him to supplement this preliminary education by the diligent reading of sound and choice books, and, through a tenacious memory and an ardent desire for knowledge, he became a man of extended scholarship and the most varied information.

    In 1838, the youth found employment in the apothecary shop of Jacob Robbins in Lowell, as a clerk and student, and there gained the training which determined his occupation for life and led him on to fortune. For four years, he studied chemistry with all the ardor of a fresh and vigorous nature, aided by his own training in study, and then studied medicine under Dr. Samuel L. Dana and Dr. John W. Graves. In both branches of science, he became proficient, taking rank at an early day both as an excellent analytical chemist and a competent physician. The University of Pennsylvania gladly gave him the degree of Doctor of Medicine.

    In April, 1841, an opportunity to buy the apothecary business of Mr. Robbins, his former employer, presented itself; and securing a loan of $2,486 for this purpose, Dr. Ayer bought the shop and its stock of goods and conducted the business thereafter on his own account, and, it may be said, with such success, that within three years he repaid the loan in full. Beginning thus without capital of his own, he had then come into the possession of a paying business. This little store was the foundation of the enormous industry, which Dr. Ayer developed in later years.

    Nov. 14, 1850, Dr. Ayer married Miss Josephine Mellen Southwick, a daughter of the Hon. Royal Southwick, for many years a woolen manufacturer as well as a political leader in that district.

    In 1855, the manufacture of proprietary medicines was undertaken in accordance with formulas invented by Dr. Ayer himself. These prescriptions were primarily intended for the use of people resident on the frontier and in remote districts, where, in cases of sickness, the prompt services of a physician could not be obtained. They proved to be useful not only to persons so situated, but to the public at large, and soon found a ready sale. Dr. Ayer's business grew in volume from year to year, until Ayer's Proprietary Medicines became known not only throughout the United States but in every part of the civilized world. Much of their success grew out of energetic and ingenious advertising. One of Dr. Ayer's original ideas was the publication of an almanac, yearly, which, in addition to its valuable astronomical data and calendar, should contain a great variety of irresistibly witty jokes as well as complete information about the medicines. Ayer's Almanac was given away by the millions of copies, and became in time no less renowned and no less eagerly sought for than the medicines themselves. The principal remedies prepared by Dr. Ayer were his Cherry Pectoral, Sarsaparilla, Ague Cure, Hair Vigor and Pills. A large laboratory was built to accommodate the growing manufacture, and was expanded until it gave employment to nearly 300 persons. The establishment having been fitted up with machinery for the publication of 15,000,000 almanacs a year, 800 tons of paper were bought annually for this single branch of the extended advertising of the house. In 1877, the firm of Dr. J. C. Ayer & Co. was succeeded by The J. C. Ayer Co.

    While the fame of Dr. Ayer grows largely out of the publicity given to his medicines, yet it must be said that his genius had many sides and his versatility was extraordinary. While profoundly versed especially in the mysteries of chemistry, he loved also the physical sciences. One of his investments took place early in the War. In November, 1861, he bought four sea island cotton plantations at Hilton Head, Ga., and engaged in cotton raising with free black labor. Although there were difficulties to be overcome, yet he finally made the enterprise successful; and the grandson of John C. Calhoun is the author of a statement, that if the South had believed that such enormous crops could be produced with free labor, there would have been no war.

    In 1865, Dr. Ayer invented processes for the disintegration and desulphurizing of rocks and ores by means of liquids, applied to them while incandescent. Three patents were secured upon these processes, but Dr. Ayer did not possess the facilities for manufacturing; and for convenience, he sold the patents to The Chemical Gold & Silver Ore Reducing Co.

    He was engaged in many important public works. Among other ventures, he embarked in a plan of his own for supplying water to the inhabitants of Rochester, N. Y., from a beautiful sheet of water named Hemlock lake. Much litigation attended this enterprise. Dr. Ayer was also one of the original projectors of The Lowell & Andover Railroad and a large owner in its stock.

    In 1870, he bought a large interest in The Tremont Mills and The Suffolk Manufacturing Co., two large cotton industries, then bankrupt and idle, and by consolidating them as The Tremont & Suffolk Mills, he placed them under good management and made them the most successful in New England. He was treasurer of the corporation for many years. Having made large investments in other factories in Lowell and Lawrence, Dr. Ayer became deeply interested in honest and capable management, and was one of the most influential advocates of corporation reform, a question which attracted the attention of the manufacturing world for two decades. It is remembered that he stoutly opposed the management of great corporations in the interests of a few large stockholders, rather than for the good of all the owners, large and small; and the strenuous battle of Dr. Ayer awakened public interest and brought about the desired reform.

    The famous Portage ship canal at Keeweenaw Point on Lake Superior, a mile and a half long, by which Portage lake and Portage river were opened through to Lake Superior, and no miles of dangerous navigation were saved and an excellent harbor created, was the product of his mind; and he was the inspiring genius and a large owner in The Lake Superior Ship Canal & Iron Co., which built the canal. An effort was made to induce Dr. Ayer to lend his strong support to the Panama canal, but his judgment of the impracticability of that water route led him to refuse to engage in the scheme.

    Always taking a native born American's interest in public affairs, and fitted by natural gifts for public station, Dr. Ayer was mentioned for Congress several times ; and in 1874, he was nominated by the Republicans of his district. That was a year of tidal reaction against the Republicans, and Dr. Ayer was defeated, as were hundreds of the best men of the party in that year. He probably would have been elected, however, had not Judge E. R. Hoar, whom Dr. Ayer had cordially supported on a previous occasion, run that year as an independent third party candidate, dividing the Republican vote.

    Ample means enabled Dr. Ayer to gratify impulses of genuine philanthropy, and he contributed a bell to the chime in St. Anne's Church in Lowell in 1857. In 1866 he presented to the city a winged statue of Victory for the public square in Lowell and made the public address of presentation. When the town of Ayer was incorporated in 1871, it was named in honor of him, and he gave it a beautiful Town Hall.

    A man of constructive ability, Dr. Ayer scorned to build his own fortune by wrecking those of others. Vast wealth came to him through untiring endeavor, honest methods, the development of new enterprises, fine organizing genius, great capacity, and a business judgment that was unusual. He never undertook what he could not accomplish and what ought not to be accomplished. He was able, unaided, to buildup one of the large fortunes of the United States, without incurring the hazards of speculation. While devoted to science, he loved literature and art. He was a good scholar in Greek and Latin, spoke French fluently, and learned Portuguese when fifty years of age. In his large house in Lowell, he accumulated a large library and was fond of reading the soundest and choicest books, especially the works of Horace. Art in all its finer forms awoke his admiration, and had he not died before the completion of his plans, Lowell would have been enriched by gifts of paintings of great value.

    He died July 3, 1878, universally regretted, leaving a large estate to his wife, his son, Frederick Fanning Ayer, and his daughter, the wife of Lieut. Commander Frederick Pearson, a gallant officer of the navy.


  1. "DR. AYER'S INSANITY. Three Guardians Appointed of His Estate, and the Doctor to Remain in the Asylum — the Cause of His Malady and His Present Condition.", Boston Globe (Boston, MA): 5, 17 May 1877,, "The unfortunate man first showed symptoms of insanity about thirteen months ago, just after returning from a trip to Chicago, and among the most prominent manifestations was the writing of a number of strange and improper letters to various persons. The cause was attributed to a too close application to business, added to which was a melancholy disappointment on account of being defeated in an attempt to gain an election to Congress. His friends decided to send him to a fruit farm in New Jersey, but while being taken through New York City the Doctor became so violent that the assistance of police had to be invoked. He was for a time held in the Bellevue Hospital, in New York, and afterwards confined in a hotel at High Bridge for a few days, but, becoming gradually worse, he was taken to the Bloomingdale Asylum, and subsequently to the Pleasantville institution, where he is now under treatment."