James McDermott: Making promises you can’t keep can come back to haunt you

The carbolic smoke ball, it was claimed in a previous pandemic, would prevent influenza, but when Elizabeth Carlill caught the flu after using it, she successfully sued its inventor in an action that has become a contract case law classic

Elizabeth Carlill bought a carbolic smoke ball, only to quickly discover that it had one crucial design flaw: it didn’t actually work.

Over the last 18 months, we have all become amateur virologists, expert in the intricacies of developing, manufacturing and rolling out vaccines. In previous global pandemics, however, standards were much lower in the pharmaceutical industry.

The Russian flu pandemic of 1889-90 is estimated to have killed a million people. In an era of quack medicine, respiratory illness was suddenly big business and Frederick Roe was keen for a piece of the action.

Roe placed an ...