I recently came across this tidbit in a book by medium Eileen Garrett:
One might suppose that the eighty-odd cents’ worth of chemical substances which, with water, constitute the human body, stood as the actual value of a man. But it is not the value of a man. No monetary figure is the value of a man (Eileen J. Garrett, Adventures in the Supernormal: A Personal Memoir. New York: Creative Age Press, 1949, p. 233).
Doing a little research, I found a few references to 87 and 89 cents as being the cost of the chemicals that make up the average human body, but an estimate of 98 cents may be the earliest form of this statistic.
The 6 May 1922 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association refers to an article by Georgine Luden (“The Importance of Visualizing Established Scientific Data with Reference to the Size of the Body Cells and Their Chemical Supplies in the Circulating Blood.” Endocrinology, November 1921):
Luden quotes an amusing, if not very precise, estimate of the total chemical composition of “the average man,” which has recently been published by a big industrial company, and which may be thus summarized: fat enough for seven bars of soap; iron enough for a medium-sized nail; sugar enough to fill a shaker; lime enough to whitewash a chicken coop; phosphorous enough to make 2,200 match-tips; magnesium enough for a dose of magnesia; potassium enough to explode a toy cannon; and sulphur enough to rid a dog of fleas. Many items in this estimate are left largely to the imagination, such as the size of the dog and the number of his tormentors, but the total cost of the ingredients is given as 98 cents, which is neither expensive nor calculated to foster megalomania (“Current Comment.” JAMA, 78 (18), 6 May 1922, 1393-4).
The JAMA article was reported in some newspapers of the day, such as the Joplin (MO) Globe, 5 August 1922, p. 3 (“Value Man’s Body at Only 98 Cents”).
Time magazine reported that a chemist at West Texas Teachers’ College had also come up with the 98-cent estimate, but later retracted that claim:
In Canyon, Tex., Dr. C. A. Pierle analyzed the body of a man weighing 150 pounds. It contained ''enough water to wash a pair of blankets, enough iron to make a ten penny nail, lime sufficient to whitewash a small chicken coop, enough sulphur to kill the fleas of a good-sized dog." All these elements, he estimated, can be purchased at a drug-store for 98¢.—TIME, Feb. 25. Dr. Pierle has never analyzed the body of a man weighing 150 pounds. The statements attributed to him were merely obiter dicta made by him in an ethical talk to a college club (“Ninety-Eight Cents.” Time, 10 March 1924, p. 22).
At an address to the American College of Surgeons in New York in 1924, Dr. Charles Mayo said “the total drug store value of a man is about 98 cents” (Robert D. Lusk, “Famous Surgeon Condemns Practice of Over-eating.” The (St. Petersburg, FL) Evening Independent, 24 October 1924, p. 3). He seems to have later used the 98-cent statistic in a temperance speech:
The noted surgeon, Dr. Charles Mayo, in addressing a large convention of boys recently said in part: “You can get along with a wooden leg but you can't get along with a wooden head. The physical value of man is not so much. Man as analyzed in our laboratories is worth about ninety-eight cents. Seven bars of soap, lime enough to whitewash a chicken coop, phosphorus enough to cover the heads of a thousand matches, is not so much, you see.
“It is the brain that counts, but in order that your brain may be kept clear you must keep your body fit and well. That can not be done if one drinks liquor” (“It’s the Brain That Counts.” Appleton (WI) Review, 21 February, 1930, p. 8).
In 1926 Time quoted another doctor on this subject:
Dr. Allan Craig of Chicago, addressing the American College of Surgeons last week at Montreal: "It is the spirit within him that makes the man supreme in the world and allows him to control materialistic things. . . . Consider the average 150-pound body of a man from its chemical aspect. It contains lime enough to whitewash a fair-sized [sic] chicken-coop, sugar enough to fill a small shaker, iron to make a tenpenny nail, plus water. The total value of these ingredients is 98 cents. . . ."
Nor was well-read Dr. Craig unique in having furbished up his speech with these neat statistics. Perhaps their first oral repetition was by the Rev. Dr. Henry Sloane Coffin from the pulpit of his Manhattan church in March, 1924, since when they have often been heard from other pulpits, platforms, publicists' desks (“Ninety-Eight Cents.” Time, 8 November 1926, p. 24).
As can be seen, the statistic lends itself both to declarations of our inestimable spiritual worth and to recognition that, considered materially, we’re cheap goods. Of course, inflation has had its effect, and there are some later variants that rate highly the value of our chemical constituents, but the statistic seems to resonate more if it’s somewhere south of a dollar.