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‘Snake Oil Medicine: where every-one gets some echinacea’
Abridged from a talk to the Auckland Medical Society in December 2005
By Professor David Cole

Early in 2005 Prof Kaye Ibbertson, the relentless grand vizier of the Marion Davis library and museum, asked
me offer the Medical Historical Society some comments about the history of unorthodox medicine. I felt that,
taking into account my former role in the orthodox hierarchy, it was a bit cheeky, even arrogant, to make fun of
the soft-bellied unorthodox fraternity. So cogent arguments were needed to decline the proposition.
I was in the process of assembling several convincing excuses, for I felt like a tired old dinosaur full of
cognitive dissonance [whatever that is] and prone to senior moments, when Kaye must have turned off his
hearing aid - and my excuses were set aside
Sure enough when the year‟s programme appeared I was there with a title chosen by Kaye himself!
As it happens this was a good title and Google and I have dug out some data that may interest you about applied
herpetology [which is the fancy name for snakes], and medicine.
We will examine Snake Oil, this quasi-respectable arthritis relieving liniment, widely used in the 1880s in the
USA, and why it morphed into a derisory term implying dishonesty, deception and shady dealing.
The nature of this topic leads one into exotic „before and after‟ coloured photos, to testimonials of spectacular
positivity, and striking diagrams of the marvelous devices that quacks are prone to use:
For example :-
The Grand Celestial Bed hired out for a night at 500 guineas,
“In which children of most perfect beauty would be begotten”.
Hot air tobacco enemas utilizing bellows….
Our own home grown water energizer the Scalebuoy of Dr Abbot‟s fame
or my favourite, from NZ Listener……. inflatable pantaloons which, worn overnight, squeeze the fat away from
the nether regions…. if doing nothing for happy marital relations.
But in the interests of conciseness we cannot pause in that fruitful orchard.
Due to the vagaries of Gondwanaland, and without any help from Saint Patrick, this country is mercifully free
of snakes. Even an up-market Chinese herbalist in Auckland, despite hundreds of bottles of „natural‟ remedies
displayed, had never heard of snake oil. But in Asia, snakes, if not ground up for a powder to relieve male
deficiencies and other ailments, are frequently eaten. David Lange in his recent auto-biography noted that, at a
banquet in Beijing in his honour, snakes were brought in alive, beheaded, skinned and cooked in front of him.
Whether it did him any good he did not say
So back to the ubiquitous world of Quackery. There was no trouble finding references.
After some hours on the Internet, the „quack-watch‟ site and perusal of some of those entrancing books from
our historical library, I got quite enthralled. I even wondered why I had not been more tolerant of our
unorthodox brethren.
So, to take things a little more seriously, it might be interesting to pause and look at the rather unlikely historical
association between medicine and snakes, and start with the ancient snakes or serpents.

The resident serpent in the garden of Eden, was, to quote Genesis 3, “more subtle than any wild creature”. As a
thoracic surgeon I was delighted to think this gifted serpent witnessed the first recorded rib removal with an
excellent therapeutic result. As we know, the serpent persuaded Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit, but this snake-
trick angered the Lord and who delivered the verdict to the serpent… “ on your belly you shall crawl”. and
“dust you shall eat”. By implication the snake lost his legs …but do we know how many were there originally?
A bit later when the Israelites were in the wilderness, Moses got very worried about many deaths from snake
bites. The Lord told him to erect a fiery bronze serpent on a pole and I quote from Numbers 21, “ everyone who
is bitten, when he sees it, shall live” So here is the first evidence of any association with healing even if it was a
bronze snake.
A few years later the ship on which Saint Paul was travelling was wrecked on Malta. He survived a bite of a
viper crawling out from a bunch of twigs he had gathered for a fire He too must have had some divine immunity
or was it just adrenaline or cortisone or endorphins or anti-oxidants, which boosted his immunity. I don‟t think
he had access to Echinacea.
We need to turn to the Greek myths to uncover a more likely connection. Aesculapius was the Greek God of
medicine who had a rather complicated start to life as son of Apollo and a nymph Coronis. This poor lady was
dealt with rather harshly by her sister-in-law and Aesculapius was delivered by what came to be called post-
mortem Caesarian section.
For 1700 years the art of medicine was based on the legends of Aesculapius but they also tell of his coming to a
sticky end when Zeus organised a personal thunderbolt for him. It appears that Hades in his underworld, was
complaining that the healer was doing so well that there were not enough people dying and entering his domain.
The Aesculapian temples, including the one that Hippocrates ran on the island of Cos, all featured snakes who
apparently were part of the therapy, representing their ability to shed their old skin and become young and
healthy again. People would sleep the night in the temple among these non-venomous snakes and presumably
felt much better for the experience.
So a snake entwined on a staff [the latter an authority emblem] became the medical symbol, representing
strength and solidarity and the unwavering ethics of medicine, later to be formalized by Hippocrates.
Some medical organizations use the two snakes around a staff, but for purists this is wrong; they say the two
snakes version is a separate symbol representing Caduceus and Hermes the messengers of the gods and is seen
to denote communication.
There is a little discrepancy here, for the USA Medical Corps badges mistakenly uses the double snake as does,
….shock horror…. the Auckland Medical History Society. Even worse the Basque terrorists [ETA] use an
emblem of a single snake entwined on an axe handle.
Despite the Bible and the Greeks and all this symbolism, the truth is that in recent times snakes have never had
a good name as suggested by „snake in the grass‟ or „viper in the nest‟ and we are lucky to avoid them in this
country - but the metaphor of their oil continues.

Among the cornucopia of secret remedies with animal overtones, Snake Oil came to prominence in the early
19th century as one of the plethora of remedies offered in the American Traveling Medicine shows.
Snake Oil had an extensive and compelling pedigree:
Greek medicine, Chinese herbal tradition which later was introduced to USA by coolies recruited to build the big US railroads, Was used by native Americans: linking it with indigenous people. This animal extract, mostly confined to the USA, was peddled as a liniment, emollient, balm or embrocation [marvelous words, better than „ointment‟]. It was particularly effective, so the salesmen proclaimed, for arthritis and indeed any chronic pain. The leading hawker was a medicine man, Clark STANLEY, of Rhode Island; he became known as the Rattlesnake King. At a medicine show, Stanley would kill rattlesnakes on his mobile stage in full view of the audience . He then boiled the snakes to make the liniment from the tallow. It was sold on the spot. What was in it? In 1989 when a modern Chinese version was analyzed 75% was a harmless oily „carrier‟ and 25% various substances camphor, menthol, clove oil and including an Omega 3 substance, so it was not entirely without merit, as many of the other scams were. In the 19th century, before radio / TV and, in particular, the introduction of the USA Food & Medicines Act of 1906, the Traveling Medicine Show was at its heyday and became a traditional feature of American life. Many health-peddlers would amalgamate to form a Show with colourful banners, brass bands, dancing girls on the stage of wagons… as well as employees planted in the audience to give flowery testimonies about the efficacy of the remedy. Before the purchases could be tested. these hucksters wisely and hastily moved on. Now a striking thing about these remedies that many were often associated with a wild animal, perhaps to give power and vitality to the nostrum. So Snake oil is joined by Tiger Balm, Bear bile, [gathered from surgical fistulas], Shark Fin (and not to forget Lion Beer and Leopard Lager). Tiger Balm is an intriguing example as it survives to this day and is sold in 80 counties… at my pharmacy I paid $11 for a tiny bottle which to quote the label “originally developed to provide relief for a Chinese Emperor”. In Google I found the reason we still have it. In 1926 a father and 2 sons brought the remedy down from China to Singapore. They were super-salesmen and did a spectacular marketing exercise. Many of you will have visited Singapore‟s Tiger Balm Gardens or seen their sponsorship of environmental issues, and educational scholarships. When analysed it too has mint, cinnamon, cloves, menthol and camphor and NO Animal products! The use of the word BALM did no harm, with its implications of soothing success. When I consulted Google I found 1.5 million sites for Tiger Balm BUT surprisingly 3.9m for Snake Oil, now an obsolete substance. The explanation was that in the arcane world of computers where encryption, that is encoded messages, is needed for secrecy, they too use the term Snake Oil merchants to describe shonky software hawkers who peddle fake programmes designed to secure data. And there must be a lot of them! Which brings us to a conclusion that Snake Oil, a very similar health remedy to Tiger balm, had its day, and was overcome by competitors using happier names. It is no surprise that, when it comes to marketing, tigers are more attractive than snakes who, come to think of it, are not equipped to suffer from arthritic limb joints. But the words snake oil survived and metamorphosed into a generic catch-phrase for dishonest and misleading statements made by charlatans and not just in the medical field. During the recent political election someone called Winston Peters a snake oil salesman. which seems a little harsh but, given his style, it must have been tempting to his opponents. He certainly didn‟t deserve another election comment about his „reptilian smile‟ . [3] SNAKE OIL SALESMEN

As you all know Google is wonderful friend for those bereft of ideas. So, among the references, I found a
promising item: „Snake Oil Salesmen‟ but this turned out, to be a pop band in New York.
Some famous names come up: William Rockefeller sold cancer elixirs in the late „80s. He was also a
ventriloquist and hypnotist, using these skills at the medicine fairs to attract customers. His son, and later
millionaire, John D Rockefeller wisely chose to market fuel oil, leaving snake oil to his father.
rue itinerant salesmen were at their most numerous in the USA in the early and mid 19th century. The American
Medical Association were very active in Quack Busting and had a department fully occupied in exposing
medical scams. Their spokesman, Maurice Fishbein [editor of JAMA] led the charges but overdid the rhetoric
and Hoxey of cancer fame, won a case against him but the damages were assessed as one dollar.
Women quacks were rather fewer but another famous remedy illustrates the factors that ensured success. Lydia
Pankhouse‟s Vegetable Compound, while stressing the vegetable aspect, contained over 15% alcohol which
secret was not revealed until the 1906 Food & Drug Act required labelling. Much of her success was achieved
by concentrating on disorders of females and it was touted as a „sure cure for prolapsed uterus‟ and all matters
connected with the „monthly travail‟. She also wrote a “Guide to Women”, which in the 1920s had a print run
of 11 million. Surprisingly 22 yrs after her death „she‟ was still replying to letters about women‟s health.
But there were plenty of examples of gifted con men like the charismatic religious preacher at the medicine
show supported by seven daughters whose combined hair length was 37 feet. Not unexpectantly he offered a
cure-all for hair loss, but after a spirited address to the gathered public he also sold copies of his sermons for 2
It brings to mind a genuine example of a cunning salesman avoiding the requirements of the Food and Drugs
Act by a carefully worded negative „promo‟ on the bottle of hair restorer :-
„Do not rub this lotion on any area you do not want hair to grow‟.
Dental extractions were also part of the traveling show. In France a „Dr‟ Fallet had a mobile dental surgery
shaped like a tooth. He offered total extractions and, it is said, was so fast he kept one tooth in the air all the
It is all very well to mock the medicine shows and the wily salesmen, but they did not have much real
competition from the regular doctors whose therapeutic range was still quite limited in the 19th century. But by
the 20th century it might have been expected that quacks would diminish as scientific medicine spread its
wings. As we all know this was not the case.
Even in the enlightened 21st century New Zealanders continue to be caught up in scams, for example, quacks
targeting obesity which is probably the disease most often involved in modern times. Here in Auckland the
Zenith Corporation offered a ‟Body Enhancer‟ which would burn up the fat and detoxify the liver. In 2 years
they sold $2 million at $90 / bottle. They were one of the few to be successfully prosecuted under the „Food and
Drugs Act‟. Quite recently a „fat melt-away‟ concoction called Celloslim was described by the NZ judge as a
dead loss and fined another couple $80,000. As recently as July „05 Consumer magazine reported that a
company,„Grander Living Water‟ would install a flow - through water energizer [not just a filter] for the whole
house, which could cost from $1,692 to $12,000. When tested for Consumer, analytical chemists could detect
no change in the water. It sold here for 10years. The Commerce Commission convicted the quacks on 9
A trip around your pharmacy will remind you that the art of selling nostrums is still buoyant. The euphonic
Evening-Primrose extract is a favourite, second only to the recently demoted [yet again] Echinacea. On the
matter of animal products Gary Tee‟s sharp eyes caught a paragraph in a recent New Scientist journal. In the
Healthy Living section of Britain‟s largest super-market chain, Tesco, a US company Wild Earth Animal Essences is selling animal „liquids‟. This included Bear liquid as well as Cheetah, Beaver even Butterfly and the inevitable Snake liquid. Lest you start to wonder how destroying these animals can be tolerated in modern times, their website reveals that no animal parts are used, not even the strange reproductive ones Chinese men seem to prefer. Their essences are „vibrational imprints‟ with the energy of the particular animal. The mind boggles at the process of imprinting in which the salesman places a bowl of pure stream water in the center of a clearing in the Virginia wilderness and walks around it in ever decreasing circles; praying to the particular animal completes the process. It is sold in 30ml lots but a litre of this energized water would sell for $NZ650!. But don‟t forget homeopathy is also based on imprinting hugely diluted substances in water. I haven‟t said much about the modern medical profession‟s attitude to some of the deviant qualified doctors I encountered while following up complaints to the Medical Council. about their aberrant practices. One way of looking at this is to imagine a spectrum of therapeutic participants On left, the scientifically hopeless… iridology [the owl eyes fantasy], reflexology, colour therapy, aromatherapy [smelly massage], and various black-boxes. On right most ordinary doctors, GPs & specialists who base most of their activities on Evidence Based Medicine. On the very far right are Neurologists who in their inverted modesty, claim the top spot although lately they are under threat from the neuro-radiologists and neuro-surgeons. In between these extremes are more traditional offerings like homeopathy with its widespread popularity. Curiously it never prospered in the USA but was a favourite with the British Royal Family. Somewhere in the middle you could put chiropracty, osteopathy and acupuncture and there are features of naturopathy with which we would not argue. One of the matters that has concerned the profession and the Medical Council of NZ [MCNZ] as its governing body, is the move of some orthodox doctors towards the left in our spectrum and who rely on totally inappropriate and unproven methods of diagnosis and treatment. A de-registered doctor is still deceiving Aucklanders under the guise of a specialist in „biological or eco-medicine ‟ . At his formal deregistering hearing he seemed to totally ignore orthodox and ethical medicine, attributing most illness to toxic chemical sprays identified by black-box diagnosis [EAV] and then uses non-pharmaceutical regimens with hyperbaric oxygen, Vitamin C and homeopathic drops. As a further example some years ago I investigated another rather confused Auckland GP who also used the black-box Vega machine too diagnose allergies in young children. Finally 3 mothers complained and agreed to recount their experiences. While the machine‟s diagnosis of toxic rashes and biological scarring from vaccination or sensitivities based on 245T and other herbicides seemed unlikely, what was more worrying was the use of ancient homeopathic explanations going back to Hahnemann himself in the late 1700s. These were so called miasms or evil spirits inhabiting polluted atmosphere, and recognition of these as aetiological factors in chronic disease was an early feature of a system that was widely known and still is practiced although miasms have been dropped by most homeopathic practitioners ! These concerned mothers were given an explanatory handout and told the child‟s troubles went back to ancestors who were rapists, or whose grandmother had syphilis. One child of 3 had been re-incarnated 5 times, was involved in Satan Worship and had a back pack of 10 miasms which would lead to:- a possible fatal road accident at 17 asthma recurrence at 30, diabetes at 60, Alzheimer‟s 70 The GP was severely dealt with by the disciplinary committee. Sure, these are extremes, but this is what some therapists, including previously orthodox doctors, are offering
and many New Zealanders are still going to them. Some to the Rainbow Clinic in Rotorua, others to Tijuana in
Mexico. The ability of many people, some desperate, to fall under the spell of quacks is something we will
never change although good publicity and a more educated and discerning public, may help.
A new factor is the Internet as a source of information and advice, which may be dangerous because its medical
material is not assessed, as are contributions to a reputable medical journal, and unproven information is taken
up. GPs are now familiar with patients bearing bits of Internet print-out.

Professional knowledge, compassion, honesty and integrity must be the base line for the caring professions but,
in the face of the complexity of ill-health management healthy skepticism nurtured by good science should be
hovering around in the background.
On the matter of scepticism could I do a small „promo‟ and draw your attention to the SKEPTICS [they have a
longer name]. Members of this group [and a similar one in Australia] have as their mission to expose subterfuge
and dishonesty in our society, in all walks of life, although medicine offers some good fodder for their quarterly
SKEPTIC magazine. Someone has labeled it the Consumer Institute of the Mind.
122 Woodhams Rd., RD1, Hamilton
May their efforts quack-busting in the medical field continue and prosper.
Gondwanaland: a vast continental area believed to have existed in the southern hemisphere and to have resulted from the breakup of Pangaea in Mesozoic times. It comprised the present Arabia, Africa, South America, Antarctica, Australia, and the peninsula of India. ORIGIN late 19th cent.(originally denoting any of a series of rocks in India, esp. fluviatile shales and sandstones): from the name of a region in central northern India, from Sanskrit „forest of Gond.‟


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