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Dear Doctor Cards- “Junk Mail” with a Difference

by Tom Fortunato, March, 2003


One of the great things about our hobby is that there are so many diverse items to collect. Let me introduce you to something you may not have known about, commonly called “Dear Doctor” cards.

Back in the mid-1950s Illinois based pharmaceutical giant Abbott Labs was looking for gimmicky way to advertise one its premiere drugs, Pentothal® sodium. It was invented in 1936 by an Abbott scientist, Ernest Volwiler, who later became president of the multi-national company.

This drug is a fast acting intravenous anesthetic, used primarily in operating rooms to send patient smoothly and quickly off to sleep, the so-called "intravenous induction". This is in contrast to the old-fashioned "mask induction", which many people still remember as that awful ether mask held over their face prior to surgery. After the patient is asleep, additional doses of Pentothal may be given or other potent inhalation agents used to maintain anesthesia.

Pentothal in smaller doses would not cause loss of consciousness, but would have a relaxing effect, much like a few drinks of alcohol. The resulting loss of inhibition led to its use as a "truth serum", made popular through movies and TV shows of the Cold War era. It really isn't a serum at all, but a water soluble yellow crystal. This allows it to be transported as two separate components - powder and water - which may be mixed up on the spot. There is no need for refrigeration or worry about a flammable fire hazard.

With the patent for the drug lapsing, Abbott’s Product Advertising Manager, Mr. R. J. DuBourdieu, was looking for a novel way of keeping the drug’s name in front of its current and potential customers. He stumbled on the idea of sending postcards from exotic locales to the hundreds of thousands of doctors on their mailing lists promoting the virtues of the drug.

In later years, another Abbott manager, Dean Carson, is said to have taken credit for this scheme of sending some 220,000 postcards to U.S. doctors and hospitals. He is quotes as saying, “I just came up with this idea, and they said fine.” If the truth be told, Abbott Lab’s French rivals, Laboratories Biomarine of Dieppe, France, sent earlier mailings on a limited basis from around the world to French physicians beginning in 1951 touting a variety of their wonder drugs. Related advertising goes back even further to the 1930s when Canadian Shell gas patrons received postcards from Iraq, Egypt, and other places telling them to “fill-er-up” at their local station. But those are other stories!

Yes, these postcards were really “junk mail,” but junk mail bearing true postal history for collectors for those who seek them.

Imagine that you were back in 1956 and received mail from places like Portuguese India, or the Arctic Circle in Sweden, or Tahiti! Then look at the colorful native scene on the picture side of the card and the stamps on the message side. Now what would you think if you received a card like this every couple of weeks? These marketers surely realized that all of these factors would add up to a knockout advertising campaign.

The nickname of “Dear Doctor” cards stuck over the years as that was the salutation found on them. A typical message on the reverse reads: “Dear Doctor- Here in Ruanda-Urundi you’ll find men who grow to be seven feet tall. And you’ll also find doctors here using the latest in modern medical techniques… and of course, PENTOTHAL. Surgeons the world over think of PENTOTHAL as synonymous with intravenous anesthesia. Abbott.”

What makes these cards so interesting to me is the variety they offer to both deltiologists (post card collectors) and philatelists alike.

I’ve been able to catalog at least 150 face-different postcards from 120 different countries. Mailings from most countries used just one design type, others used many. For example, at least a dozen are known from in Mexico, while Great Britain, Germany and France used several as well. Popular subjects were depicted on the picture side. Many show natives in daily life activities and/or wearing typical attire. Others show landmarks, tourist attractions, and handicrafts. One of the most impressive is the Queen Elizabeth ocean liner card, a whopping 8.25 by 5 inches in size, with a watercolor painting of the vessel. Finding these super-sized cards in pristine condition is a challenge.

By the way, cards were also sent to nurses on their mailing list. Card varieties addressed to them are known to be missing the salutation altogether. Later mailings in the mid-1960s geared specifically to them start out “Dear Nurse Anesthetist.”

The philatelic elements these cards offer present a challenge as well.

All were mailed at the cheaper surface rate rather than airmail. In some cases, even lower rates between Commonwealth countries were used. For some countries, like Greenland, they represent the only known examples of non-philatelic printed matter rate mail. It’s especially fun to find cards bearing dated receiving markings which allow you to figure how long the card took to reach its destination.

Not all countries used the same stamps or postmark types on each mailing. The mailing dates on the cards are identical on some types, while other mailings were spread out over several months.

Now I’ll really complicate things for you. While Abbott Labs was US based, it had clients worldwide, and for that matter still does. Cards to US addresses are most prevalent, but English language mailings were also sent to Canada and Hong Kong. Cards in other languages have also surfaced, written in French, German, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, and even Greek!

Do you collect first day covers? Then you’ll surely want to collect “Dear Doctor” cards. Great Britain’s 3d Shakespeare stamp of April 23, 1964 is found on a card with a Stratford-upon-Avon first day cancel. September 1, 1965 was the first day cancel used a card honoring the 4d Lister Centenary from Great Britain as well. Chile’s 50 centesimo flag anniversary stamp issue of July 18, 1967 was proudly used on a card from that country and sent around the world.

Are you a topical collector? You’ll find most popular subjects depicted among the stamps used on cards. Finding these on legitimate commercial mail sent at surface rates should garner bonus points for exhibitors!

Very little has been written about these cards over the years. One of the earliest articles I’ve found was written by George Griffenhagen and Jack Day in the October 1984 issue of “Scalpel & Tongs,” the publication of the medical unit of the American Topical Association. It included perhaps the first listing trying to document all known cards by their country, city and date of the postmark, and card illustration.

“Barr’s Post Card News” issue of July 19, 1993 featured an article written by Daniel Friedman entitled, “The Story Behind Pentothal Sodium Cards by Abbott.” This article states that Abbott’s marketing plan (according to Dean Carson) was to send out an average of 250,000 postcards from 16 different locations every year from 1956-1959. An additional 75,000 cards were to be mailed in Spanish, French, and German. No definitive records have ever surfaced to verify these numbers.

Specialists have gotten on the “Dear Doctor” bandwagon as well. Martin Walker published an article titled, “The Pentothal Advertising Postcards Posted from Wilkes Base” in the 2001 edition of “Philately from Australia.” Details came from the official Australian Postmaster-Generals Department files on the case.

At least 280,000 cards bearing either the 8d AAT stamps to US addresses or 5d AAT stamps to Canada were prepared for mailing by Abbott’s Camperdown, New South Wales office in June, 1960. The intent was to have them postmarked at the Wilkes base. The 34 bags of mail were transported by the Post Office from Sydney to the Melbourne Philatelic Office, where postal officials realized that that quantity would inundate the small base staff. So the decision was made to actually process the bulk of the cards onboard the ship’s voyage to and from the base. The incident prompted regulations to be implemented that no more than 100 covers be accepted by any one person or firm, and that advertising mail be accepted with the understanding that it may be processed en route aboard the ship rather than at the base itself.

I have collected “Dear Doctor” cards and their varieties for about 10 years now, building on the Griffenhagen checklist, and have personally viewed over 2,500 to date. Prices range from 25 cents to upwards of $40 for some with additional auxiliary markings on them, but most can still be bought for $2-$6 each. I continue to make new discoveries regularly.

The whole story about these cards may never be known. Like most philatelic pursuits, it’s like assembling a jig-saw puzzle, but more details continue to surface. I’m currently collaborating on a book on the subject with Dr. David Lai of Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center’s Department of Anesthesia. He has received a research grant from Abbott Labs to scour their archives and other sources to uncover more of this tale and assemble for them a reference collection of cards, something Abbott never did.

I’d appreciate hearing from anyone interested these cards, either as a beginner collector or advanced specialist. Contact me by mail at 42 Maynard St, Rochester, NY 1615-2022, or through email at stamptmf@frontiernet.net.