Snake oil was used as traditional medicine throughout history. How did it get such a bad name? 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been talk of numerous dubious panaceas for COVID-19.

President Trump has launched the malaria treatment hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for the coronavirus, despite the World Health Organization saying clinical studies show it doesn’t prevent disease or death.

And earlier this year, U.S. television pastor Jim Bakker was asked to pay compensation for selling a dietary supplement that he falsely claimed could cure COVID-19.

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In the past, shady remedies have been called “snake oil” and those who urge them to do so have been called “snake oil sellers.”

But what are the origins of snake oil and how did its sale get such a bad rap?

Healing effects

According to Dr. Caitjan Gainty, who teaches the history of science, technology, and medicine at King’s College London, snake oil was sold across America in the 18th and 19th centuries.

“Snake oil has been seen as a very effective cure for a lot of different things, especially things like rheumatism and arthritis,” says Dr. Gainty to the Sunday Extra from ABC RN.

Some advertisements went a step further, claiming it could cure a sore throat, catarrh, hay fever, convulsions, and even numbness.

“Whether or not it helped in every case is not entirely clear,” she says.

“But with arthritis it certainly seems to make a difference.”

Snake oil has always had an exotic origin, says Dr. Gainty.

“Some people would say, ‘This is from an African voodoo doctor I met, or this is from a Native American, or this is secured from China and brought here by the Chinese migrants who work on the railways.’ “, she says.

A seller sprays snake oil on the street in Johannesburg in South Africa. (Getty: Hoberman Collection )

It has been used medicinally in many different cultures because of the benefits of the omega-3 fatty acids in the meat of certain snakes, particularly the water snake in China. This could have been why it appeared to help with conditions like arthritis.

“But whatever the source, the idea was that snake oil in this form would actually be helpful and healing.”

In the 19th century, the American pioneers, who likely heard of the supposed healing benefits of snake oil, caught many of the native rattlesnakes and sent them in hopes of making some extra money to turn them into oil, Dr. Gainty explained.

Snake oil was also cheaper than other available drugs at the time. When unorthodox medical professionals started selling it on the traveling medical shows, the public was open to trying it out.

“These fun tours would move from city to city,” says Dr. Gainty.

“You get great entertainers like Harry Houdini and lots of bluegrass and country musicians. And you also get these people who sell their snake oil. ”

What is inside?

Originally, the product was what it claimed to be – real snake oil. But over the years it became unclear what exactly was included in these funds.

That was until the Pure Food and Drug Act went into effect in 1906 and investigators began to take a closer look.

It turned out that snake oil wasn’t as authentic as it was claimed.

Dr. Gainty said there was a classic example at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.

“That snake oil salesman, Clark Stanley, boiled a few snakes on the spot and then somehow skimmed them off [the oil] and put it in bottles and said, ‘Here’s your snake oil,’ “she says.

Clark Stanley's snake oil An advertisement for Clark Stanley’s snake oil liniment. The supposed panacea finally came under the microscope. (Flickr: Jim Griffin)

The inspectors found it inadequate.

“They said, ‘This is red pepper and camphor – this is not snake oil. That’s a problem, ‘”she adds.

The legislation went even further. Manufacturers had to label their products if ingredients such as alcohol, opium, morphine, heroin, cannabis indica, chloral hydrate were present.

Snake Oil in Australia

Australians took a different approach.

“Here in Australia we used the term quack rather than snake oil sellers,” says Monica Cronin, curator of the Geoffrey Kaye Museum of Anesthetic History.

The Melbourne museum currently has an exhibit called From Snake Oil to Science, which offers a glimpse into some of the folklore medicines that were once used in Australia.

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Snake oil itself wasn’t as popular here as it was overseas.

“I am not aware that snake oil is actually made [in Australia]”Says Ms. Cronin.

“That could have something to do with the fact that at this point we are more closely linked to Britain than America.”

That doesn’t mean they didn’t sell all of the snake oil here, she adds.

“It just means they haven’t advertised it in newspapers or those newspapers haven’t been digitized.”

But there were still unorthodox medical professionals in Australia.

Ms. Cronin points to Ludwig Bruck, a 19th century medical journalist who set about naming and shaming unregistered “doctors”.

He had 257 unregistered practitioners from all over Australia and New Zealand on his list.

Some claimed they were practicing medical clairvoyance, which involves touching a patient or one of their possessions and diagnosing them.

Others claimed to be hydropaths, electrotherapists, and phrenologists.

Promotional brochure for Chamberlains cough suppressants and many other products. Chamberlain’s cough suppressant was said to cure many illnesses, but its main ingredient was likely alcohol. (Scope of delivery: Yarra Ranges Regional Museum)

And there were many unusual cures, many of which are highlighted in the exhibition.

She offers an interesting example:

“Cough Medicine in Australia [contained] Heroin until the 1950s. “

“So heroin will actually relieve your cough. But it’s not strictly advisable to have it available over the counter, so things like that happened.”

It was also common for drugs to have alcohol as a main ingredient.

“One of the very popular ones was Chamberlain’s cough suppressant,” she says.

“It was supposed to cure whooping cough, hoarseness, bronchitis, sore throat, flu, and all diseases of the throat and lungs, apparently. Alcohol was probably the main ingredient.

“We have Perry Davis Vegetable Pain Killer. The active ingredient was probably the alcohol and also paprika because the active ingredient in paprika and chilli can be used for pain relief.

“They may have worked, but how effective they were is to be won.”

Perry Davis pain reliever Perry Davis’ Canada-made herbal pain reliever medication has been distributed by missionaries around the world. (Delivered: Fincham Collection 169)

While many of these so-called remedies have disappeared, the use of snake oil in medical treatment is said to continue.

“There was this suggestion from Florida that they should solve their problem with invasive species – the Burmese python – to harvest these snakes and use the squalene in those snakes as an additive to COVID-19 vaccines,” says Dr. Gainty.

“But I don’t think anyone took that too seriously.”

Eradicating snakes from the country is not as popular as it was in 19th century America.

“Apparently none of the major vaccine manufacturers have used it [squalene]what animal rights groups that oppose the use of the Burmese python liked. “

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