A HISTORICAL ACCOUNT OF RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENTOF THE USE OF LIVERS FROM THE FRESH WATER BURBOTBY: EVELYN C. SMITH OF SMITH BROS. FISHERIES
My interest in burbot, or freshwater ling, was in my early days when, as a child, I saw my father slap a large-white burbot liver onto the kitchen wood burning stove and ask my mother and myself to see what would happen. A flame, about two feet high and a smudge of.I equal size, rose from the stove much to the disgust of my mother who after it burned, scraped off the excess residue. This incident impressed me with a feeling that some day I would know more about it.
After serving nearly eighteeen months of nursing service in World War I in France with Base Hospital #22 of Milwaukee, I took a post graduate course in Public Health and following it, I became Sheboygan County's Public Health Nurse. There were many malnourished children, many of whom were what we call pre-tuberculosis. Burbot (ling) was a nonsalable fish food, though the flesh was delicious, it was given away to the families who needed food. I received the livers from catches by my father during the week. I boiled these in close covered utensils, poured off the oil, bottled it and took it with me to Sheboygan and gave it away to children as a substitute for cod liver oil. The results were marvelous and I continued this program for about two years, always getting my supply of burbot from my family; Smith Bros, of Port Washington, Wisconsin (my home town).
My interest followed when I placed an ad in the local Port Washington, Wisconsin weekly inviting families to bring an empty bottle to the fish market, and I would give them free burbot oil "substitute" for cod liver oil. The back counter was lined with beer, pop, medical, milk, and other bottles every week as I returned to my home for week ends, I recall that one little boy, who made frequent visits for fish oil, was asked by my father, "What do you do with the oil? You were here just the other day". The lad replied, "We fry our potatoes in it". The reason I am writing this is because we knew what depression really meant for some families in those days.
My interest in the true value of burbot oil prompted me to write to the Department of Fisheries in Washington, D. C. and ask them for an analysis. They refused me, saying that they were two years behind in their laboratory work. I then wrote to the Bio-chemistry Department at the University of Wisconsin. My letter was answered with an invitation from Dr. Steenbach to present some fresh burbot livers, and that future samples would be needed. One day, I received a phone call from him telling me that the oil of my samples had more natural Vitamin A & D than any oil coming in from Norway and Sweden. I was delighted and then contacted a laboratory in Chicago to do further analysis and there Dr. Pachini suggested putting the oil in capsules (pearls). This was followed with precise directions, but one day when in England, Dr. Pachini cabled me to discontinue sale of the pearls. The government had passed a law that all vitamin products had to specify their exact amount of vitamins in each pearl by way of bio-chemical work. I knew nothing of this kind of work but an interested bio-chemist, Dr. Walter H. Eddy of Columbia Hospital, New York, invited ma to the hospital to learn how to determine the vitamin potency by use of chemicals. I was there about nine days and came back to Port Washington and set up a little laboratory to do the colormetric testing.
While this was going on, I had resigned my position as nurse in Sheboygan County and returned to Smith Bros, in Port Washington and later to Washington Island, Wisconsin. Our work on Washington Island consisted of going from one fishery to another in a truck and picking up the burbot which would have been thrown to the sea gulls. Another lad and I dissected the fish, took out the beautiful white liver which weighed about 30% of the total body. With a high pressured steam boiler, we cooked the livers in a large container lined with coils through which steam jetted to the livers. The residue dropped to the bottom and we skimmed off the oil and put it in a settling tank for the night. In the morning, we drew off the water and residue and poured the oil into steel lined barrels and shipped it to Port Washington.
At one stage of our operation, we filleted the fish and shipped it in 20 lb. tins to a restaurant where it was deep fat fried after being coated with crumbs. Right here, I want to say it was delicious, but our operation ended on Washington Island when the lamprey eel invaded the Great Lakes.
The production of burbot became so low that Smith Bros, gave up the project. We returned from Washington Island with several fifty-two gallon barrels of raw oil. We had set up a battery of filters in the Freezing Department in the basement of Smith Bros, and with pressure, pumped the oil through these cloth filters to remove the stearins or waxes. The net product was a very clear oil, but of unknown potency. We were out of the burbot oil business when a young pharmacy of Beaudette, Minnesota; The Rowell Fish Company, appeared and wanted to purchase our oil, our filter, steel line drum, etc. We sold out!
One of my activities, when I could no longer get large quantities of burbot oil, was to emulsify burbot liver oil in bees wax to use as an ointment for open leg sores. This product was very acceptable for the aged, but the odor was offensive for some. The heavy Vitamin A & D acted quickly to, sterilize the wounds and bring forth healthy granules of healing with less pus. I wasn't satisfied with the amount of oil that the bees wax would take so I went to Yahr & Lange in Milwaukee to ask if there wasn't a heavier wax. They recommended Japan Wax, a product hard as concrete, sold in slabs. This was just what I wanted and bought their entire supply. Then the war with Japan came on and my ointment was not as concentrated, but by this time we were practically out of business anyway. The last report I heard was about ten years ago, in 1969,. when burbot oil was selling at $150.00 per gallon. I recently read the ingredients on the package of Preparation-H that-the contents contained 3% of shark liver oil. Preparation-H is used in rectal conditions and this reminded me that at one time we had sold burbot oil to some rectal physicians in gallon containers.
I am writing this in Sun City, California where I live in the winter time, and I do not have any records here of my interest in burbot. My interest in this field was in about the years, 1928 to 1940. It has always been my wish that somebody would renew interest in this fish. My thoughts here travel to the skin of the fish which I have always thought as a big source of gelatin.
26 February 1979
Editors note: Alan Smith adds some of his own recollections of the Burbot Oil processing.