When you joke about smarmy snake oil salesmen, did you know that there really were such people? Back in 1905, an American cowboy named Clark Stanley billed himself as the “Rattlesnake King”, gathering crowds by killing rattlesnakes while delivering his miracle cure sales pitch. For 50 cents a bottle (at a time when your income averaged $1 a day), you could cure your toothaches, neuralgia, ankle sprains and pretty much everything else that ailed you by using Stanley’s snake oil liniment.
Stanley kept making his magical promises – right up until the federal government seized one of his shipments in 1917 and tested it.
The ingredients (unlike the traditional Chinese sea snake oil that contained a high percentage of real sea snake fat that likely did provide some relief because of its high anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acid content) turned out to be about 99 percent mineral oil and 1 percent beef fat, with traces of red pepper and turpentine thrown in the mix to give it a more medicinal smell.
From a public relations perspective, that was the beginning of the end of snake oil’s reputation. But for thousands of years, there wasn’t in fact much of a difference between scientific medical practices and medical quackery. Thanks to the placebo effect, charlatans could (and sometimes still can) hype and sell a worthless bill of goods to a gullible public.
Let’s revisit nine other favourite examples of medical quackery in not-so-recent history:
The first modern frontal lobotomy performed to cure mental illness occurred in 1935. Further experimentation by a psychiatrist, Dr. Walter Freeman, resulted in a 10-minute method that separated the frontal lobe of the brain by wielding an ice pick by way of the eye socket. Some patients claimed to feel cured of mental illness after having the procedure, while others were left in a state of passiveness, regression or neurological devastation that required around-the-clock care for the rest of their lives.
Freeman hyped lobotomies as a cure not only for mental illness but also headaches and misbehaving children. Freeman traveled the country, performing lobotomies wherever and whenever he could. Until the 1950s, he performed the haphazard surgery – often performed so quickly that he once lobotomized 25 people in a single day.
Based partly on an ancient Greek belief that all forms of sickness were the result of an imbalance in the body’s “humours” (phlegm, yellow bile, black bile), bloodletting’s been around for 2,500 years. Depending on who was doing the explaining, this practice either lets the blood breathe or it releases demons. It’s been practiced by monks, priests and barbers – later doctors – until the mid-1800s, but fell out of favour in North America by the 1920s.
3. Testicular Implants
Back in 1917, a man in Kansas confided to his doctor that he was suffering from impotence, while noting that his farm goats, on the other hand, were remarkably frisky. Why, the desperate man wondered, couldn’t the doctor transplant the goat’s reproductive organs into his body? His “doctor” (who had ordered his medical degree from a mail-order catalogue) agreed to try, the patient believed he’d been cured, and that’s how this practice became popular. His “doctor” then bought a radio station and began publicizing his amazing success over the air waves; he completed over 16,000 goat testicle implants before his practice was ultimately shut down.
4. Electrical Hairbrushes
Dr. George A. Scott‘s uncharged and unchargeable “electrical” hairbrush debuted in 1880. It was in fact slightly magnetized. Plenty of people bought the devices that carried the promise to cure almost everything. Instructions for his brushes also advised: “People of sedentary habits and weakened nerve powers will find it a valuable companion.” The electric brush fell out of favour by 1890.
5. Animal Magnetism
This was a special ability to correct imbalances in the universal fluid that flows through everything in this world, according to Franz Anton Mesmer, an 18th-century German physician who first studied this universal force-fluid in Vienna and later Paris. Through the use of magnets, Mesmer believed he could clear up blockages in this force-fluid. He then discovered that he himself was one of the few who possessed animal magnetism – even without the magnets. Mesmer put on full-blown stage productions, featuring chanting, music, special lighting and stagecraft. The effect of the presentation was so intoxicating that its effect now claims his name: mesmerizing. But Mesmer was eventually investigated on order of King Louis XVI, and soon after, he left Paris forever.
6. Historical Baldness Cures
In the 19th century, men lost their hair at approximately the same rate they lost their money on baldness cures. A tonic marketed as Hall’s Vegetable Sicilian Hair Renewer contained the ingredient lead, which not only helped bring colour to the hair, but also ensured that darkened hair would be admired by doctors and undertakers alike, since many customers fell ill to lead poisoning after using the product. A competing baldness cure was Burnett’s Cocoaine. The makers of Burnett’s Cocoaine didn’t add cocaine to their product, but rather coconut oil, spelled “cocoa-nut oil”.
7. Radioactive Water
At the beginning of the 20th century, springs that produced naturally hot “mineral water” were (and still are) very popular. In 1903, it was discovered that many of these springs had radioactive water, so the natural conclusion was that radioactivity was good for you as this radiated water carried the powerful life force of radioactive energy. Soon these hot springs were being advertised as radium spas, and an entire industry was built on the supposedly curative powers of radiation. Reputable medical journals stated that radium slowed aging and cured insanity, malaria and diarrhea. There was no fancier way to be healthy in the 1920s than to take a long soak in a radioactive bath at a radium spa. Some enterprising souls began marketing radiating water crocks that allowed consumers to radiate their own water. Items like the Revigator sold several hundred thousand units in 1929 alone. These handy and chic household devices could quickly make your water radioactive, enabling you to drink the six or so daily glasses of it as recommended by the manufacturers. Before long, you could purchase radioactive beauty cream, toothpaste and ear plugs. But when well-known proponents of the water began falling ill and dropping dead, the radium craze began its decline.
8. Electromagnetic coil
Before the FDA gained oversight of medical devices in 1932, business was fairly brisk for some outlandish and generally useless cure-all contraptions. From the 1860s to around the 1940s, one such device peddled to the people was an electromagnetic coil that not only improved your health, but it made you feel younger and even look more attractive by providing your cells with more oxygen for “miraculous” results. While electrical currents are still used today (though at higher power and lower expectations) to ease muscle ache and tendonitis, these early devices gained plenty of accolades from early users for curing everything from cancer to gout. Users of electromagnetic belts benefited greatly from the placebo effect. People believed the devices would make them feel more energetic and youthful, and so that is how many of them felt after using the devices. See also: Magnetic or copper bracelets ineffective in treating pain
9. Child-calming Patent Medicines
It wasn’t until 1962 that a drug had to be shown as both safe and effective in order to be legally sold. In the 19th century, such quality standards were nonexistent, so the market was flooded with ointments, balms and tinctures that might be either effective or downright dangerous. Most were, at best, useless. Falling into the latter category was an assortment of medicines that were purported to calm upset babies, allowing the infant – and the parents – to sleep soundly through the night. They had reassuring names such as Soothing Baby Syrup, Dr. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup and Kopp’s Baby Friend.
Desperate parents eager for a full night’s sleep turned to these patent medicines. They did work as advertised thanks to the ingredients: as much as 8.5 percent alcohol and one-eighth grain sulfate of opium per ounce. Sadly, there were reportedly many child deaths due to these narcotic formulas. The American Medical Association publicized the dangers of using such products, and the popularity of narcotic infant soothers began to wane in the early 1900s.
Source: Discovery Fit & Health
- Why Isn’t California Disciplining Its Dangerous Doctors?
- When Doctors Go Retail: Is It Okay to Sell Products?
- Dr. Ben Goldacre’s Rapid-Fire Story of the ‘Nocebo Effect’
- Amazing (and Strange) Examples of Placebo Miracle Effects
Not sure snake oil is dead when one looks at the marketing of some pharmaceuticals.
Amen to that!
And they were called witch doctors….hmmmmm.
And many other names….
Yes, they were and some still deserve the title.
1. Lobotomies – I would be very very good if someone stuck an icepick in my eye too
2. Bloodletting – Menstruation for men!
3. Testicular Implants – I thought the saying was “hung like a horse”. Now we know it’s that, plus, “strapped like a goat”.
4. Electrical Hairbrushes – Half the year my hairbrush is ‘electrical’ too.
5. Animal Magnetism – …until people started getting stuck on bridges and railroad tracks.
6. Historical Baldness Cures – Methinks that these ‘cures’ might have worked better if they really DID have cocaine in them. (At least no one would care about their lack of hair).
7. Radioactive Water – It’s a wonder our forbears were born with arms and legs… Radioactive ear plugs- Now replaced by cell phones.
8. Electromagnetic coil- Electromagnetic belts? — But what about the goats?!
9. Child-calming Patent Medicines- Would NEVER have been taken off the market if the parents would have used these potions instead of their babies…
My sincerest apologies Ms. Carolyn;
And oh, how I do love your articles!
This one was most refreshing! Thank you so much for making me laugh out loud (truly).
What fun! Loved your comments, Annie! 🙂