Snake Oil's secret ingredients

NewImageThere was no actual snake oil in old timey snake oil (except when there was, of course). Rather, most of the lotions and potions sold by early 20th century miracle medicine salesmen actually contained mercury and lead. Now, don't you feel better? University of Detroit Mercy chemists recently analyzed the ingredients of several dozen patent medicine samples from the Henry Ford Museum's collection. From Smithsonian:
Their findings, which they presented yesterday at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society in Atlanta, were that many of the pills, powders and ointments tested had beneficial ingredients like calcium and zinc—but that others had toxins such as lead, mercury and arsenic.

Back in the day, this was a very trial-and-error kind of field,” (chemist Mark) Benvenuto said in an interview. “The stuff that we think of as dangerous now, though it was dangerous, was as cutting-edge as they had at the time.”

"What’s in Century-Old ‘Snake Oil’ Medicines? Mercury and Lead"

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  1. OP: “… most of the lotions and potions sold by early 20th century miracle medicine salesmen actually contained mercury and lead.”

    No support for this claim in the linked article.

      1. The quote (“…many of the pills, powders and ointments tested had beneficial ingredients like calcium and zinc—but that others had toxins such as lead, mercury and arsenic.”) does not suggest that ‘most’ of the substances tested contained lead or mercury.

        1. So the fact that the article talks about the scientists testing the substances and presenting their results– the presence of lead, mercury, and arsenic– to the ACS… All of that is not support for the claim? 

          1.  No. The article notes lead and mercury were present in some cases but does not suggest this was the case for most of the substances tested (let alone for “most of the lotions and potions sold by early 20th century miracle medicine salesmen”).

      1. Pescovitz is doing here what crappy science journalists do every day – take a study that makes very specific, narrow claims (in this case, that at least some of “several dozen patent medicines … from the Henry Ford Museum’s collections” contained lead and mercury) and present it as making much broader, more general claims (“most of the lotions and potions sold by early 20th century miracle medicine salesmen actually contained mercury and lead”) in order to … I don’t know – write sexier copy or something.

        It’s nonsense. It should be called out when it occurs.

  2. I toured a Revolutionary War era home with a large portrait of a beautiful woman with very pale skin. The secret ingredient to her pale powdered skin? Arsenic!

      1. I distinctly remember arsenic so I googled a bit and found this: http://www.doctorsreview.com/history/mar05-history/

        “In England, during Victorian times, arsenic was put to good use in women’s face powder, just as it had been for both sexes during the reign of Elizabeth I, some 300 years before. ” This house was prior to that but according to Wikipedia arsenic had been used in makeup in the Middle Ages. 

        Lead based face paint seems more likely based on The Google but arsenic seems also possible.

  3. “The stuff that we think of as dangerous now, though it was dangerous, was as cutting-edge as they had at the time.”

    That seems to be a very generous assessment which suggests that the producers of the pills had any intentions beyond simply selling as many of their magic pills as possible, regardless of effect.

  4. If you read Lewis and Clark’s Journals, their medical kit was state of the art for the time.  And almost 100% crap.  They used renowned Dr. Benjamin Rush’s Pills (they contained a significant dose of mercury) for pretty much everything.  They also had mercury along to treat syphilis and the big-G.  Lots of lead and other toxins too for other stuff.  That said, only one guy died on the expedition (of a suspected burst appendix).  After returning though, most did not live long, productive lives…   

    1. And amazingly enough historians have been able to trace their exact route across the country by all the heavy metals they left… behind.

  5. It should be noted that toxic substances had — and still have! — legitimate uses when used in subcritical doses. If something is an effective vermifugewhen such things are few and far between, for example, that may be enough of a benefit that people would be willing to overlook its cumulative effects. Especially when life expectancy was shorter and medical treatment was less frequent, so the number of opportunities for accumulation was reduced.

    Even now, some of our treatments still consist of dosing the patient with something that is bad for them but worse for the disease. Chemotherapy for cancer is the poster child for that approach, and some of the compounds that have been used successfully are pretty darned vicious. For a long time the tradeoff was that anything which worked well against cancer was likely to damage the kidneys, but since dialysis was possible this might be an acceptable tradeoff. (Some of those were heavy-metal based, in fact — I was involved in replicating one study based on a platinum compound.)

    Of course a lot of the “snake oil” relied on the principle that “anything which tastes this bad and makes me feel this bad must be doing something useful.” And/or was based on theories which we now recognize as pure magical thinking. But I wouldn’t be surprised if there were just enough actual cures to help keep that market going.

    And of course eventually folks managed to figure out which ingredients were actually useful and/or safe.

    1. “anything which tastes this bad and makes me feel this bad must be doing something useful.”

      a tradition which might live on today in psychiatric medication…

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