For around sixty years “Wawn’s Wonder Wool” was a familiar over-the-counter item in pharmacies throughout Australia, says Ralph Tapping
Victor A. Wawn was one of the younger generation of pharmacists who at the time thought beyond the limitations of retail pharmacy and set up a small manufacturing business to produce a range of household remedies, the best known of which was Wawr’s Wonder Wool, a product that was used in most Australian households until at least the 1970’s as a skin warmer to comfort coughs and colds and ease strained muscles etc.
Victor Wawn was born at East Brighton, Victoria in 1884. When he left school he was apprenticed to a chemist in Melbourne who had learned and practised his profession on the Continent and who stimulated Victor to understand the chemistry of the drugs they used in dispensing.
In those days he worked from 8am till 10pm on four days per week and was paid 5/- ( 50c ) per week. This jumped to the giddy heights of one pound ( $2 ) per week when he qualified. By 1905, the same year that he was able to vote, he became the proprietor of his own pharmacy. He built up several pharmacy businesses, one after the other, and then sold them at substantial profits.
Wawn then joined the Australian Branch of Burroughs Wellcome & Co, and he covered the whole of New Zealand, Tasmania and New South Wales. One thing that became firmly embedded in his mind from this experience was the necessity for thoroughness in the presentation of the various lines.
When he took up the manufacture of Wonder Wool, Wawn did not attempt things on anything like a grand scale. He made his start at Cobb’s Pharmacy at Waverley, Sydney, medicating the cotton wool in a bucket and drying it the sun.
As demand for the product grew, he invested in an ordinary hand mangle with which to treat the wool. Further progress lead to the installation of a power mangle, which eventually robbed Wawn of the top of one of his fingers.
He recalled that at one stage in his career, with failure looming, Mr (later Sir) Sydney Kidman, the cattle magnate, put a thousand pounds ( $2000 ) at his disposal, and told him to keep trying. That bit of encouragement at the right moment probably had a great deal to do with preserving for Australian manufacturing generally, the enthusiasm, push and initiative of a man who was keenly interested in the success of local enterprises.
In association with three other chemists he moved on from the back-room manufacturing and set up a factory in Alexandria, near Sydney where they produced a range of remedies.
When WONDER WOOL was at the height of its popularity there were five carding machines to process the raw cotton from Queensland to produce their cotton wool and they also used Qld birds-eye chillies for the extraction of CAPSAICIN, which together with METHYL SALICYLATE were the medicating ingredients for Wonder Wool.
Originally, the capsaicin was imported from Japan, but Warn developed his own process to make the extract and he boasted that his product was very powerful and wonderful in its effects and most importantly, was Australian made!