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An artificial bezoar stone from Goa, India
An artificial bezoar stone from Goa, India
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

5 Dubious Historical Antidotes for Poison (and What Actually Works)

An artificial bezoar stone from Goa, India
An artificial bezoar stone from Goa, India
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

When it comes to their health, humans will believe just about anything. In this extract from the new book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything, authors Lydia Kang, MD, and Nate Pedersen discuss some of the more questionable ways people once tried to protect themselves from poison—whether or not the methods actually worked.

Poison is everywhere. Naturally or unnaturally, it can be in the soil (arsenic), in the air (carbon monoxide), in your drinks (lead), and in your food (cyanide). With so much danger around, it’s no wonder humans have obsessed over finding a universal antidote—the one thing that could save us from all toxins. Imagine you’re a medieval prince about to inherit the throne. Chances are, there are a lot of power-hungry wannabes waiting in the wings. A little arsenic or hemlock might be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Just in case, best have an antidote on standby.

For millennia, a certain amount of magical thinking was employed when arming oneself against poison because science was inconveniently slow to catch up. So grab your handy unicorn horn and a bezoar, and let’s take a look.

1. BEZOARS

Bezoars have been used for centuries as antidotes to poisons. A bezoar is solid mass of undigested food, plant fibers, or hair found in the digestive tracts of animals, including deer, porcupines, fish, and, yes, humans. Anyone with a cat is familiar with the less-cool feline version: hairballs.

Bezoars and other stone-like items created by animals often had a good story behind them. Legends told of deer that would eat poisonous snakes and become immune or cry tears that solidified into poison-curing stones. First-century Arabic author al-Birumi claimed bezoars could protect against one poison called “the snot of Satan,” which we hope never ever to encounter. By the 12th century, when Europe became plagued with, uh, plagues, the bezoar crept into pharmacopeias as panaceas and alexipharmics (poison antidotes).

Bezoars were a seductive notion for the rich and royal, who were at risk of assassination. The stones were often enclosed in bejeweled gold for display or worn as amulets. Indian bezoars, in particular, were sought for life-threatening fevers, poisonous bites, bleeding, jaundice, and melancholy. Consumers were also known to scrape off a bit of bezoar and add it to their drinks for heart health and kidney stones. These tonics were sometimes adulterated with toxic mercury or antimony, which caused vomiting and diarrhea, making buyers think they were effective.

But were they? One team of researchers soaked bezoars in an arsenic-laced solution and found that the stones absorbed the arsenic or that the poison was neutralized. Hard to say if it worked well enough to cure a fatal dose. Ambroise Paré, one of the preeminent French physicians of the 16th century, was also a doubter. The king’s cook, who’d been stealing silver, was given the choice between hanging or being Paré’s lab rat. He chose the latter. After the cook consumed poison, Paré looked on as a bezoar was stuffed down his throat. Six hours later, he died wracked with pain. Perhaps he chose ... poorly?

2. MITHRIDATES

This antidote was named after Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus and Armenia Minor. Born in 134 BCE, he pretty much invented the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” by consuming poisons daily to prevent his own assassination. His royal home was stocked with stingray spines, toxic mushrooms, scorpions, mineral poisons, and a poisonous plant–filled garden. He was so unpoisonable that after his son took over his kingdom and he faced execution, he couldn’t even commit suicide by poison! He begged a guard to stab him to death. (It worked.)

Though the king’s actual recipe for the antidote is nowhere to be found, versions began to circulate after his death, and they became synonymous with the king himself. Compounds with lengthy and expensive ingredient lists prevailed, including iris, cardamom, anise, frankincense, myrrh, ginger, and saffron. In the first century, Pliny the Elder snarkily remarked, “The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients ... Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions? ... It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science.”

Showy or not, people would take the extensive mix of herbs, pound them together with honey, and eat a nut-sized portion to cure themselves. At least it endowed them with expensive-smelling breath.

3. HORNS

An apothecary shop sign in the shape of a unicorn
An ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn's head
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Unicorn horns have been considered a part of antidote legend since the mythical beast galloped into literature around 300 BCE. For centuries afterward, real earthly beasts would sacrifice their lives and their horns to slake our thirst for the miraculous, nonexistent animal, including rhinoceroses, narwhals, and oryx. Even fossilized ammonites were used. It was believed that drinking vessels made of such horns might neutralize poisons, and wounds could be cured by holding them close by. In the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots reportedly used a unicorn horn to protect her from poisoning. Too bad it didn’t prevent her beheading.

4. PEARLS

Pearls have long been thought to be powerful antidotes. A beautiful, rare gem created by the homely oyster, a pearl is born out of annoyance (the mollusk secretes iridescent nacre to cover an irritant, like a parasite or grain of sand). Pretty as they are, they’re about as useful as the chalky antacid tablets on your bedside table; both are chiefly made of calcium carbonate. Good for a stomachache after some spicy food, but not exactly miraculous.

Pearl powder has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of diseases, and Ayurvedic physicians used it as an antidote in the Middle Ages. It was also reported to make people immortal. An old Taoist recipe recommended taking a long pearl and soaking it in malt, “serpent’s gall,” honeycomb, and pumice stone. When softened, it would be pulled like taffy and cut into bite-sized pieces to eat, and voilà! You would suddenly no longer need food to stay alive. Cleopatra famously drank down a large and costly pearl dissolved in wine vinegar, though in that case she wasn’t avoiding poison. She didn’t want to lose a bet with Antony—which might have fatally injured her pride.

5. THERIAC

Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
A vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Theriac was an herbal concoction created in the first century by Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, who was reported to have Mithridates’s secret notes. It was a mashed formula of about 70 ingredients, including cinnamon, opium, rose, iris, lavender, and acacia in a honey base. In the 12th century, theriac made in Venice was branded as particularly special, and Venetian treacle (derived from a Middle English translation of theriac) became a hot commodity. Its public, dramatic production often attracted curious crowds.

By the 18th century, cheaper golden syrup was substituted for honey. As treacle began to lose its luster as a treatment, its definition as an herbal remedy disappeared from common vernacular. But the sweet syrup remained. Which is why when we think of treacle, we think of treacle tarts, not a fancy means of saving ourselves from a deathly poisoning.

BONUS: WHAT ACTUALLY WORKS

Thankfully, science has brought us a wide range of antidotes for many items we shouldn’t be exposed to in dangerous quantities, if at all. N-acetylcysteine, fondly referred to as NAC by doctors, saves us from acetaminophen overdoses. Ethanol can treat antifreeze poisoning. Atropine, ironically one of the main components of plants in the toxic nightshade family (such as mandrake), can treat poisoning from some dangerous fertilizers and chemical nerve agents used as weapons. For years, poisonings were treated with emetics, though it turns out that plain old carbon—in the form of activated charcoal—can adsorb poisons (the poisons stick to the surface of the charcoal) in the digestive system before they’re dissolved and digested by the body.

As long as the natural world and its humans keep making things to kill us off, we’ll keep developing methods to not die untimely deaths.

We’ll just leave the fancy hairballs off the list.

The cover of the book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
Workman Publishing

Excerpt from Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang, MD and Nate Pedersen/Workman Publishing. Used with permission.

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12 Things You Might Not Know About MAD Magazine
Mad Magazine
Mad Magazine

As fast as popular culture could erect wholesome depictions of American life in comics, television, or movies, MAD Magazine was there to tear them all down. A near-instant success for EC Comics upon its debut in 1952, the magazine has inspired generations of comedians for its pioneering satirical attitude and tasteful booger jokes. This month, DC Entertainment is relaunching an "all new" MAD, skewering pop culture on a bimonthly basis and in full color. To fill the gaps in your knowledge, take a look at these facts about the Usual Gang of Idiots.

1. NO ONE KNOWS WHO CAME UP WITH ALFRED E. NEUMAN.


Jamie, Flickr (L) // Boston Public Library, Flickr (R) // CC BY 2.0

MAD creator Harvey Kurtzman was in the offices of a Ballantine Books editor discussing reprints for the fledging publication when he noticed a grinning, gap-toothed imbecile staring back at him from a bulletin board. The unnamed figure was ubiquitous in the early 20th century, appearing in everything from dentistry ads to depictions of diseases. A charmed Kurtzman adopted him as MAD’s mascot beginning in 1954. Neuman later become so recognizable that a letter was delivered from New Zealand to MAD’s New York offices without an address: the envelope simply had a drawing of Alfred.  

2. THEY HAD TO APOLOGIZE ALMOST IMMEDIATELY.

MAD was conceived during a particularly sensitive time for the comics industry, with parents and watchdog groups concerned over content. (It didn't switch to a magazine format until issue #24.) Kurtzman usually knew where the line was, but when he was laid up with acute hepatitis in 1952, publisher William Gaines and others had to step in for him. Gaines thought it would be funny to offer a fictional biography of himself that detailed his father’s Communist leanings, his past as a dope dealer “near nursery schools,” and bouts of pyromania. When wholesalers were shocked at the content and threatened to boycott all of his titles, Gaines was forced to write a letter of apology.  

3. THEY PREDICTED JOHN F. KENNEDY'S ELECTION IN 1960.

But it was a cheat. In the run-up to the 1960 Presidential election, MAD printed a cover that featured Neuman congratulating Kennedy on his victory with a caption that read, “We were with you all the way, Jack!” But the issue was shipped long before votes had been tabulated. The secret? It was a dual cover. Flip it over and Neuman is celebrating Richard Nixon’s appointment to office. Stores were told to display the “right” side of the magazine depending on the outcome.

4. ALFRED BRIEFLY HAD A GIRLFRIEND.


MAD Magazine

A character named Moxie Cowznofski was introduced in the late 1950s as a female companion for Alfred. She made only a handful of cover appearances, possibly due to the fact she looked alarmingly like her significant other.

5. THEY DIDN'T RUN ANY (REAL) ADS FOR 44 YEARS.

From the beginning, Gaines felt that printing actual advertisements next to the products they were lampooning would not only dilute their edge but seem more than a little hypocritical. After some back-and-forth, MAD cut ads starting in 1957. The decision was a costly one—most print publications survive on such revenue—but led to the magazine’s keeping a sharp knife against the throat of seductive advertising, including cigarettes. Faced with dwindling circulation in 2001, Mad finally relented and began taking ads to help pay for a switch to color printing.

6. "SPY VS. SPY" WAS CREATED BY A SUSPECTED SPY.

Cuban cartoonist Antonio Prohias was disenchanted with the regime under Fidel Castro when he began working on what would become “Spy vs. Spy.” Because Prohias’ other newspaper illustrations were critical of Castro, the Cuban government suspected him of working for the CIA. He wasn’t, but the perception had him worried harm might come to his co-workers. To get out of the situation, Prohias came to America in 1960. With his daughter helping translate, he stopped by Mad’s New York offices and submitted his work: his sneaky, triangle-headed spies became regulars.

7. THERE WAS ONE FOLD-IN THEY WOULDN'T RUN.

Artist Al Jaffee, now 94, has been with Mad almost from the beginning. He created the famous Fold-In—the back cover that reveals a new picture when doubled over—in 1964 after seeing the fold-outs in magazines like National Geographic, Playboy, and Life. Jaffee has rarely missed an issue since—but editors backtracked on one of Jaffee’s works that referenced a mass shooting in 2013. Citing poor taste, they destroyed over 600,000 copies.  

8. THEIR MOVIE WAS A DISASTER.

With the exception of Fox’s successful sketch series, 1994’s MAD TV, attempts to translate the MAD brand into other media have been underwhelming: a 1974 animated special didn’t even make it on air. But a 1980 film venture, a military school spoof directed by Robert Downey, Sr. titled Mad Presents Up the Academy, was so awful William Gaines demanded to have their name taken off of it. (Renamed Up the Academy, the DVD release of the movie still features someone sporting an Alfred E. Neuman mask; Mad parodied it in a spoof titled “Throw Up the Academy.”)

9. THE APRIL 1974 COVER HAD PEOPLE FLIPPING.


MAD Magazine

MAD has never made a habit of good taste, but a depiction of a raised middle finger for one issue in the mid-’70s caused a huge stir. Many stores wouldn’t stock it for fear of offending customers, and the company ended up accepting an irregular number of returns. Gaines took to his typewriter to write a letter of apology. Again. The relaunched #1, out in April 2018, pays homage to this cover, though it's slightly more tasteful: Neuman is picking his nose with his middle finger.

10. THEY INVENTED A SPORT.

MAD writer Tom Koch was amused by the convoluted rules of sports and attempted to one-up them in 43-Man Squamish, a game he invented for the April 1965 issue. Koch and artist George Woodbridge (“MAD’s Athletic Council”) prepared a guide that was utterly incomprehensible—the field was to have five sides, positions included Deep Brooders and Dummies, “interfering with the Wicket Men” constituted a penalty—but it amused high school and college readers enough to try and mount their own games. (Short on players? Try 2-Man Squamish: “The rules are identical,” Koch wrote, “except the object of the game is to lose.”) For the less physically inclined, Mad also issued a board game in which the goal is to lose all of your money.  

11. WEIRD AL WAS A GUEST EDITOR.

In what must be some kind of fulfilled prophecy, lyrical satirist “Weird” Al Yankovic was named as a guest editor—their first—for the magazine’s May 2015 issue. Yankovic told Entertainment Weekly that MAD had put him on “the dark, twisted path to becoming who I am today … I needed to pollute my mind with that kind of stuff.” In addition to his collaborations with the staff, Yankovic enlisted Patton Oswalt, Seth Green, and Chris Hardwick to contribute.

12. FRED ASTAIRE ONCE DANCED AS ALFRED E. NEUMAN.

In a scene so surreal even MAD’s irreverent editors would have had trouble dreaming it up, Fred Astaire decided to sport an Alfred E. Neuman mask for a dance number in his 1959 television special, Another Evening with Fred Astaire. No one seems to recall why exactly Astaire would do this—he may have just wanted to include a popular cultural reference—but it was no off-the-cuff decision. Astaire hired movie make-up veteran John Chambers (Planet of the Apes) to craft a credible mask of Neuman. The result is … well, kind of disturbing. But it’s a fitting addition to a long tradition of people going completely MAD.

Additional Sources:
Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created Mad and Revolutionized Humor in America.

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10 Tantalizing Tidbits About Star Trek: The Next Generation
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

by Kirsten Howard

When Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted in September 1987, no one was quite sure what to expect. After all, this was a new Enterprise with a new crew trying to revitalize a franchise that had only lasted three seasons the last time it was on television. And while the movie series was still bringing in solid box office returns, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy would play no part in this new Trek.

The Next Generation was a gamble for Paramount, and for the first few seasons, it looked like one the studio was going to lose. But once the series got over some initial behind-the-scenes chaos, it blossomed into one of the most popular sci-fi TV shows of all time. Even as bigger and shinier installments in the franchise continue to come out, this is the definitive Star Trek for countless fans. So lean back in your captain's chair and enjoy 10 facts about Star Trek: The Next Generation.

1. THE SHOW GOT OFF TO A ROCKY START.

Things were tumultuous at best behind the scenes during the first season of the show, as writers and producers clashed with creator Gene Roddenberry over themes, characters, and ideas on a weekly basis. The in-fighting and drama became such a part of the show's legacy that William Shatner himself chronicled all of it in a 2014 documentary called Chaos on the Bridge (which is currently streaming on Netflix). In it, producers, writers, and actors recounted anecdotes about the difficulties they had dealing with Roddenberry's somewhat overbearing mandates, including his infamous rule that there never be any direct conflict between the Enterprise crew members (unless one was possessed by an alien, of course) and his habit of throwing out scripts at the last minute. This led to 30 writers leaving the show within the first season, according to story editor and program consultant David Gerrold.

As Roddenberry’s health began to deteriorate after the first season, his influence over the writers waned, freeing up ideas that were departures from the creator's original vision. He would pass away in 1991, but his presence would never completely leave the series. For years, a small bust of Roddenberry sat on executive producer Rick Berman's desk with a blindfold wrapped over its eyes. "Whenever they come up with a story I don't think Gene would like," Berman said, "I blindfold him when we discuss the story."

2. GENE RODDENBERRY REALLY DIDN’T WANT A BALD CAPTAIN.

'Star Trek' creator Gene Roddenberry
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

For years, William Shatner had cast the mold by which all future Star Trek captains would be judged. And it was that image of the confident, swashbuckling James T. Kirk that Roddenberry wanted to preserve when bringing a new captain in for The Next Generation. So when Berman wanted to cast Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean-Luc Picard, the issue was clear: he was no Shatner.

Roddenberry was completely unconvinced that Stewart was right for the role, with Berman saying the Trek creator didn’t like the idea of “a bald English guy taking over.” But after countless auditions with other actors, Berman continued to bring Stewart up to Roddenberry, who eventually caved and agreed to bring him in for a final audition under one condition: he wear a wig. So Stewart had a wig Fed-Exed from London and auditioned for Roddenberry and Paramount Television head John Pike one final time. 

That audition was enough to win Roddenberry over, and Stewart was finally brought aboard as Picard with the wig cast aside. Roddenberry would eventually go on to fully embrace Picard’s follicular shortcomings, and according to Stewart, when a reporter at a press conference once asked him why there wouldn’t be a cure for baldness in the 24th century, Roddenberry responded by saying, “No, by the 24th century, no one will care."

3. ONLY ONE PERSON HAS EVER PLAYED HIMSELF IN STAR TREK HISTORY.

Stephen Hawking was visiting the Paramount lot during the video release of the film A Brief History of Time when he requested a tour of the Next Generation set. After making his way onto the iconic Enterprise bridge, he stopped and began typing into his computer. Suddenly, his voice synthesizer spoke: “Would you lift me out of my chair and put me into the captain's seat?"

Hawking asking to be removed from his chair was basically unheard of, so his wishes were granted immediately. Later, with writers having become aware that he was such a huge Trekkie, Hawking himself was written into the sixth season finale episode “Descent – Part I” by Ronald D. Moore, who would later go on to reimagine the Battlestar Galactica universe.

4. A WHOLE EPISODE WAS WRITTEN FOR ROBIN WILLIAMS.

Late actor and comedian Robin Williams was also a huge fan of the show and was desperate to appear in it, so an episode of the fifth season—"A Matter of Time"—was drawn up by Berman to allow Williams to shine at the center of a mystery about Professor Berlinghoff Rasmussen, a time-traveling historian from the future visiting the past to observe the Enterprise crew completing an historic mission.

Unfortunately, when it came time to shoot the episode, Williams found himself unavailable to appear in the episode. So Max Headroom star Matt Frewer was cast as Professor Rasmussen instead.

5. PATRICK STEWART APPROACHED BEING TORTURED ON SCREEN VERY SERIOUSLY.

In the episode “Chain of Command, Part II,” Picard has been captured by Cardassians and is subjected to a variety of torture methods by his interrogators. As a member of the human rights organization Amnesty International, Stewart did not want to shy away from the realities of torture, so he watched tapes sent to him that included statements from people who had been tortured and a long interview with a torturer explaining what it was like to be the one inflicting pain on others. Stewart also insisted on being completely nude during the first torture scene, so as not to betray the experiences of those who had undergone similar horrors.

6. THEY USED SOME PRACTICAL EFFECTS.

The transporter effect on the show may look completely computer generated, but in fact it’s all done quite organically. First, a canister is filled with water and glitter and then a light is shone through it. After stirring the liquid briskly, the resulting few seconds of swirling glitter are filmed and then superimposed over footage of the actor standing in the transporter area, with an added “streak down” effect to blur the glitter further.

7. LORE WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A WOMAN.

Android Lieutenant Commander Data had many adventures during the series, on and off the Enterprise, but his evil twin brother, Lore, stands out for many fans as one of the show’s greatest antagonists. Surprisingly, Lore was originally created as a female android character for the show, but the actor who plays Data, Brent Spiner, came up with a different idea: an evil twin nemesis in the shape of a long-lost brother.

8. THERE WAS AN OPEN SUBMISSION POLICY ON SCRIPTS.

When Michael Piller took over as head writer on the show in 1989, an open submission policy was launched where absolutely anyone could submit up to two unsolicited scripts for consideration. Opening up the possibility of writing for TV to people outside of the Writers Guild of America and talent agency pool was unheard of at the time, and over 5000 spec scripts were received a year at one point. "Yesterday’s Enterprise," one of the show’s most popular episodes, was based off a spec script from the open submission policy.

9. SOME SCRIPTS WERE RECYCLED FROM THE SCRAPPED PHASE II.

A still from 'Star Trek: The Next Generation'
Paramount Pictures

A decade before The Next Generation debuted, there was a failed attempt at a revival called Star Trek: Phase II. Though a first season was mapped out, it never saw the light of day, and the movie series was produced in its place. However, the scrapped scripts and concepts lived on in various Trek projects over the years. For the second season premiere of The Next Generation, producers reclaimed the script for "The Child" as a way to get a story quickly into production during the 1988 writer's strike. The season four episode "Devil's Due" was also taken from the backlog of Phase II scripts. 

More elements from Phase II would influence Trek for years, such as the pilot being reworked into Star Trek: The Motion Picture and the now-familiar elements of the Japanese-inspired Klingon culture being introduced in the shelved episode “Kitumba.”

10. THE TRANSPORTER IS THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS.

In what was either a cost-cutting move or a sly Easter egg (or both), the ceiling of the Enterprise's transporter room in The Next Generation is actually the floor of the transporter room from the original series. That's far from the only recycling that went on between the Trek series. The orbital office complex from Star Trek: The Motion Picture was reused as the Regula I station in The Wrath of Khan, which was then itself reused as a number of different space stations on The Next Generation (plus Deep Space Nine and Voyager).

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