Quack Doctor Cures Through History

Thanks for the recommendation, Doc. But I think I'll pass.

August 15, 2017
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Did you know that up until the mid-1700s, many Europeans believed their monarchs were divine and could cure ailments with just a touch of their hand?

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This “cure” might sound crazy to us in an age of modern medicine, but quack medicine practiced by snake oil salesmen has persisted throughout history.

Since the beginning of time, it appears that people will try just about anything in the name of wellness.

Yes, doctor, I’d love to have all my blood drained.

Hippocrates popularized the notion that the body was controlled by four humors–blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Each humor was associated with an element of earth, wind, water, or fire and a season of the year.

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For good health, the humors were supposed to be kept in harmony. When a person became ill, doctors tried to restore humoral balance.

That’s how the unappealing art of bloodletting came into practice. Sick patients would be drained of their blood by barber surgeons, often pints at a time, in an attempt to restore the humors’ balance.

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In fact, the modern barber pole remains an emblem of the bloodletting practice. The red and white stripes are symbolic of the bloody and clean bandages used during bloodletting surgery.

Unsurprisingly, draining a very ill individual of most of their blood did more harm than good, but bloodletting remained a popular medical practice for hundreds of years. Bloodletting reached the height of its popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries, when leeches were stuck all over the body as a way to drain blood.

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By the late 19th century, most doctors agreed that bloodletting does not cure disease. However, the practice still continues and is endorsed by some celebrities as the next great detox diet.

A clyster a day keeps you close to the restroom.

Clyster is just a fancy word for enema. In modern medical terms, enemas are used to evacuate the bowels when things just aren’t moving like they should. While enemas help relieve occasional constipation, people throughout history believed that clysters could cure a variety of ills.

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Clysters were especially en vogue during the Middle Ages, and their popularity reached a fever pitch in 18th-century France, when French royals sometimes administered themselves up to four clysters a day.

In the United States, enemas were popularized by one man in the early 1900’s: John Harvey Kellogg, brother of the creator of the eponymous cereal. Kellogg built his famous health sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan, where guests ate a regimented vegetarian diet, exercised regularly, and had up to five colonic cleanses a day.

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Certainly there are times when enemas are necessary to help things along, but there aren’t any other associated health benefits. In fact, using enemas too often can lead to laxative dependency.

Just a spoonfull of snake oil…

In popular culture, snake oil salesmen were loud, brash cowboys around the turn of the last century who traveled to small towns across America hawking medicinal tonics that promised to cure any ailment.

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The original snake oil salesman, Clark Stanley, also the self-styled “Rattlesnake King,” became famous for his patented “Snake Oil Liniment.” This elixir claimed to contain rattlesnake oil that could cure any ache or pain, from toothache to lumbago.

Stanley was a master showman and did not learn of his snake oil remedy from the Hopi Indians, as he claimed. Instead, he appropriated his claims from Chinese immigrants, who did use snake oil medicinally. The Chinese water snake was rich in omega 3 fatty acids, which we now know reduce inflammation. Chinese laborers used the oil on sore muscles.

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As you might have already guessed, Stanley’s liniment contained no snake oil at all but was a mixture of mineral oil, red pepper, and turpentine. Still, people continued to buy his liniment until he was finally fined $20 by the government for fraudulent medical claims.

Consume these to cure consumption.

Consumption, the disease we now know as tuberculosis, started with an innocuous cough. It progressed rapidly, and patients wasted away as the infection ravaged their lungs. In the 19th century, when consumption reached its peak in America and Britain, doctors recommended fresh air and exercise as treatment.

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Enter Dr. William Frederick Jackson, who claimed to have invented a cure for consumption, alliteratively named Pink Pills for Pale People (PPPP). They contained a mix of iron oxide, magnesium sulfate, sugar, and licorice. But the product didn’t take off until George Taylor Fulford bought and marketed them overseas.

Patients did see mild improvement in their coloring after taking PPPP. This was thanks to magnesium sulfate, an iron supplement that bolstered the blood temporarily. Consumption patients seemingly lost their sickly appearance and got their energy back.

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Unfortunately, the effects were temporary, and though popular, PPPP did nothing to cure consumption. Thanks to modern medicine, we now know tuberculosis can be cured using antibiotics to fight infection.

Forget medicine. Have a big glass of orange juice instead.

We’ve all heard that vitamin C is the best cure for a cold, but it turns out this is a big, fat lie.

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Dr. Linus Pauling, who is the only person to have won two Nobel Prizes in different fields (show-off!), touted the healing properties of vitamin C, claiming it could cure everything from the common cold to cancer.

By the mid 1970s, more than 50 million Americans were following Pauling’s vitamin C advice.

However, Pauling’s claims about high doses of vitamin C were refuted over and over again by scientists. In fact, those studies showed the opposite to be true. In high doses, vitamins—including vitamin C—can actually exacerbate health conditions and lead to a shortened life span.

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Although Pauling did live to be an impressive 93 years old, his vitamin C regimen did not stop him from ultimately succumbing to prostate cancer.

Feeling gassy? Better get the fart jar.

Believe it or not, bottling fart fumes used to be a thing that people did in the Middle Ages.

In the 1600s, the bubonic plague hit Europe, well, like a plague. Hundreds of thousands of people died from the contagious disease, which was thought to have been caused by vapors in the air. In reality, the plague was caused by a bacterial infection spread primarily by fleas.

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Doctors at the time (who wore these crazy bird-beak masks to ward off the disease) believed that the deadly vapors causing the plague could be fought with bodily vapors.

Hence the fart jar.

People were encouraged to collect their stinkiest SBDs. When the plague entered their community, they opened the jar and took a big sniff to keep the bubonic plague away.

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While flatulence collecting has to be one of the quackiest cures out there, medieval doctors may have been onto something. It turns out that farts are actually a defense mechanism that can warn us of possible harm.

Unless you’re a benign masochist, though, it’s probably best to leave the fart jar at home.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Katie Martin
Katie Martin
Contributing Writer