The Current

From arsenic to goat glands: A history of the world's worst medical cures

Arsenic, mercury, and goat testicles — just a few of the terrible ideas peddled successfully by "quacks" through the ages.
An advertisement for a product that was supposed to calm babies and help get babies to sleep. It contained morphine and/or opium. (Workman Publishing)

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It's a list of "cures" that makes us feel lucky to live in a time of medical research and scientific method.

From opium-laced syrups to calm a baby, to the surgical implantation of goat testicles to help men regain vitality, to using the right foot of a hyena to speed up labour for women (always the right foot — the left foot of a hyena, it was believed, would bring death), it can seem like a miracle that anyone survived medical treatment at all in past centuries.

Dr. Lydia Kang and her co-author journalist Nate Pedersen look at their 67 favourite cures from the past in Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything.

Dr. Lydia Kang and co-author, journalist Nate Pedersen, look into the history of the worst medical cures and why we keep falling for it in their book, Quackery. (Workman Publishing)

Poisons were popular cures, from antimony to make patients vomit, to mercury which burned the skin, to arsenic which gave skin a "healthy" glow. Patients sometimes died — and yet the treatments continued.

"Back then, they did have a good understanding that a little bit too much could kill you, but they also didn't have a better way of making sure the doses were going to be just so," Kang tells The Current's Friday host Laura Lynch.

"And because they didn't have better treatments and there was a lot of discussion saying, these things do help if you use them the right way, they continued to be used for centuries."
An Indian Bezoar (shown here) was used as a poison antidote. Bezoars are essentially a hairball - a solid mass of undigested food, plant fibres and hair found in animals like deer, porcupines or fish. People would decorate them with gold and jewels and use them as an amulet to protect against the effects of poisoning. (Workman Publishing)

The orgone accumulator box, which patients could sit in for hours to restore their energy balance and sexual vitality, was a big hit with the Beat generation in the middle of the 20th century — even though it was actually just an empty box.

"I can imagine that if someone sat in a box thinking about sex for four hours, at the end of the four hours you might actually feel like your libido was up again," says Kang.

Cures also came from the human body, through what is sometimes called "medical cannibalism."

"The theory of 'you are what you eat' was taken literally, so the bodies of young healthy men who died a violent death —and therefore hadn't suffered from illness — were a prized commodity. This included freshly executed criminals.

"On occasion, the executioners made a good amount of money selling the bodies, harvesting the fat and selling the fat as a medical salve," says Kang.

Blood, livers and brains were also popular in medical treatments, according to Kang.

Despite lack of scientific proof of the effectiveness of these cures — in part because the scientific method is a relatively new development — patients, some doctors and even sometimes the inventors of these snake oil cures believed the treatments were effective.

"There are a couple of things that made people feel it really did do some good," says Kang.
The snake oil liniment ad popularized Clark Stanley's Snake Oil Liniment at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. (Workman Publishing)

"One is bias: you put some money towards something and you have this post-purchase rationalization that makes you think, well, it must work because I paid some money for it. Or, you have friends who used it and they think it worked great too."

Though many of these cures now seem ridiculous, Dr. Kang says we see a whole host of new forms of quackery in our day.

"Because there isn't a cure for everything and because we are so prey to our biases, it's very easy for snake oil salesmen to step out there and say, 'well I have something that could work that's far better than what modern medicine has to provide,'" Kang tells Lynch.

Her advice for telling the facts from the frauds? Follow the money.

"When someone is trying to push a product with the hope of sales, and the sale seems to be the final most important thing, that should make people very, very wary," says Kang.

"A quack, by definition, isn't always someone who is touting what they think is fake. It is oftentimes a person who is pushing the sale above all else."

Listen to the full conversation above.

This segment was produced by The Current's Karin Marley.