Hooked on Tonics: Snake Oils, Hangover Cures, and Other Questionable Medicine

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Stick Out Your Tounge
Snakes, you just can't trust "˜em. First they go around getting us humans kicked out of paradise, then they (or, rather, their oil) become synonymous with quacks and patent medicine. Snake fat, you see, was once believed to have curative powers and no snake fat solution was more curative than "Stanley's Snake Oil," the brainchild of cowboy Clark "The Rattlesnake King" Stanley. The King made a name for himself hawking his wares at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, where he dressed in flamboyant western togs and convinced thousands of customers that his oil could cure everything from mosquito bites to rheumatism. Despite the snake oil's miraculous reputation, Stanley was careful to point out that it was for external use only. Good thing. When the U.S. government finally ran some tests on the stuff in 1917, they found it contained a few ingredients you wouldn't want down the hatch, including: mineral oil, used to (roughly) cure constipation; camphor oil, which is used primarily as embalming fluid; and turpentine, a key ingredient in paint stripper and Vap-o-rub. As for the promised oil of rattler, that snake Stanley had used easier-to-acquire beef fat instead.

Turn Your Head and Cough

Hairballs aren't so pretty when they turn up on the rug, but during the Renaissance these frankly gross gastrointestinal phenomena were prized for their powers of healing and protection. While we're familiar with the wet, stringy hairballs kitty leaves behind, the pharmecuetical version, called bezoars, were more like pearls and were formed in the stomachs of goats or other cud-chewing animals. People believed these glassy masses of compressed hair and food could suck poison or even rabies out of the body. Members of the Medici family, who controlled much of Europe at the time, carried them around obsessively, though not without reason, as poisoning members of the Medici family was something of a continental sport. The bezoar lives on in today's medical literature, but mostly in the psychiatry section. Doctors occasionally have to remove them from the stomachs of people who obsessively chew their hair.

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I'm Not A Doctor But I Play One On T.V.
Part of the fun of selling patent medicine was becoming a major celebrity. Or, at least as much of a celebrity as was possible in the pre-mass media 19th century. The seven daughters of former preacher Fletcher Sutherland found their ticket to stardom when they started selling a mixture of vegetable oil and alcohol, marketed under the name Seven Sutherland Sisters Hair Grower. With a collective hair length of 37 feet, the girls were their own best advertisement and they toured the country for 38 years, eventually becoming some of the best-known women in America and earning some $2.75 million. Not even death could stop this public relations steamroller. When the youngest sister, Naomi, died in 1893, the others simply replaced her with a well-maned actress. But, as anyone who's watched "E! True Hollywood Story" knows, fame is a harsh mistress. By the 1920's the sisters were broke. Promise of a film version of their lives brought them to Hollywood, but after the deal fell through and another sister died the others were forced to leave her ashes in California, unable to afford a burial.

Veghospital.jpgTake Two Pigs And Call Me In The Morning
Folk medicine in Ireland relied heavily on the belief that you could magically transfer illness from a person to an animal (usually a pig or a donkey). These "transference cures" were especially popular for curing mumps and whooping cough. When Irish immigrants settled in America, they brought their belief in transference with them. In Appalachia, for instance, people once believed that the surest cure for a crick in the neck was to rub your neck on a tree a hog had just rubbed against.

It's All In Your Head
Folk medicine wasn't just about inventing cures; sometimes practitioners went that extra mile and invented a whole disease. Take "white liver," a disease that supposedly caused white spots to appear on said organ, but who's external symptoms affected organs of a different kind. Sufferers of the white liver, which were primarily women, were said to have insatiable sex drives. In the 19th century American South, women who had survived more than one husband were sometimes known as "white livered widders," the idea being that they had, in effect, pleased their husbands into and early grave. Although Americans have pretty much replaced white liver with nymphomania, the term is still popular in Jamaica. Unfortunately (or fortunately) for victims of white liver, there is no known cure.


Feel better about your HMO yet? There's more info on questionable medical practises where this came from. Check out mental_floss volume 3, issue 5.

February 12, 2007 - 3:39am
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