'Quackery' Chronicles How Our Love Of Miracle Cures Leads Us Astray

Oct 15, 2017

Since the beginning of time, humans have been searching for ways to make ourselves feel better fast. Unfortunately, history has shown that many of those ways — cannibalism, cocaine tooth drops, ingesting heavy metals — left us sick, broke, or both. Yet we keep looking for that fast cure.

Dr. Lydia Kang, an author and a primary care physician in Omaha, Neb., is the co-author of Quackery: A Brief History Of The Worst Ways To Cure Everything, which publishes Oct. 17. She talked to us recently about her new book, the gross things people have done through the centuries in search of health, and what it means for modern medicine.

As a culture, we are always looking for a quick fix, especially for our health. "We are so used to getting things immediately, it's hard to be patient and wait," says Kang.

"We're always trying so hard as people to just feel better. We want normal, we want function. When something goes a little off, we are really, really eager to get back."

That may have especially been true before physicians truly understood physiology. And before Google. "Let's be honest. People don't go to their doctors first," Kang says.

From ancient times through Victorian times, people believed in humoral medicine, the idea that balancing a body's humors or fluids helped maintain health. Black bile (melancholy), yellow or red bile, blood, and phlegm had to be kept in harmony, or the person would become ill. This led to bloodletting, induced vomiting, and a host of other practices that launched industrieThs for leeches, vomiting chalices, tapeworm pills and the like.

The book includes many examples of people falling for false cures. Cocaine was used to soothe tooth pain, develop a feel-good soft drink called Coca-Cola, and likely inspired and provide fuel for the author of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde before we realized it was addictive.

Using ice picks to operate on the brains of desperate and unfortunate patients with mental health issues sounds like a bad idea now, but the illnesses that drove people to try it persist. "Depression is still a major, major problem," Kang notes, "It's probably more frustrating that we have so far to go."

Another bad idea was ingesting metal. Heavy metal pills were so popular in the 1800s that even the future President Lincoln took a pill called "blue mass" that was essentially some flavorings mixed with mercury to "cure" his headaches, mood swings, and constipation, according to Quackery.

Lincoln apparently recognized at some point that the pills were making things worse, and actually ramped down his dose while in office. "One shudders to imagine a mercury-toxic, pathologically moody leader of our nation calling the shots during the Civil War," the book notes wryly.

Mercury ointments and pills was also a common and unsuccessful treatment for syphilis, which plagued humans from the 1400s until the early 20th century, when penicillin was finally called in. "

Similarly, for decades, people thought taking gold pills would cure them of a variety of illnesses. Kang says she can see the logic. "Sun is warm. Gold is like the sun. If we can put something gold in a drink, we can be healthy ... Gold never tarnishes."

In one of the odder stories in the book, Kang finds that in the 18th century, people believed a tobacco smoke enema could revive drowning victims. "Instead of putting a life preserver on the side of the bank by the Thames, they put this bellows kit," Kang says, because they believed it would warm the victim and stimulate respiration.

Since it did neither, the practice later led to the phrase, "blowing smoke up your arse," i.e. giving someone an insincere compliment.

Kang's favorite "cure" in the book is the concept of cannibalism as medicine.

"I'm always afraid to say that out loud ... people will look at me funny," Kang says. Why did people think it worked? "You are what you eat ... if you can consume something that was full of vitality, then you can be full of vitality."

We're still not completely scientifically-minded when it comes to medicine. When a new (or old) idea comes along and someone we know or admire swears it makes them feel better, we are more likely to go for it, says Kang.

"I wish people had a better understanding of bias confirmation — feeling sick and wanting desperately for your bad back to feel better changes your objectivity," she says.

As a doctor, Kang tries to convince her patients to research their ideas carefully without talking down to them or shaming them. She recommends reading through a few good medical websites and having long chat with your doctor before attempting anything that might potentially hurt you.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We're going to hear now about cures involving radioactive elixirs, drilling holes in the head, rat poison. Yikes. What were doctors thinking? These in all manner of medical horrors through the centuries can be found in a new book "Quackery: A Brief History Of The Worst Ways To Cure Everything." It's co-authors are journalist Nate Peterson and internal medicine physician Lydia Kang. She practices in Omaha, Neb. Welcome.

LYDIA KANG: Thanks for having me.

MONTAGNE: There was a point at which radiation was all the rage for everything.

KANG: It was. And it wasn't that long ago. In the early 1900s, Marie Curie had discovered radium. Everybody thought it was the biggest and best thing. So they put it into water, so people would drink radioactive water. It was a treatment called Radithor that was sold all over the place. People could buy their own crocks that were impregnated with radioactive compounds so that when you put water in it, you could drink your own radioactive water at home.

MONTAGNE: What were they trying to cure?

KANG: They thought that it would make them young again and give them youthful vigor. People would take it for aching joints, restoring ill health. I mean, it was all these vague complaints and problems.

MONTAGNE: The cures didn't really take, right?

KANG: Well, no. It didn't help at all because you can't actually use radium to cure hypertension or diabetes or rheumatism. What happens is when you ingest radium like that, unfortunately, one of the places that the body likes to take up that element is in the bones. And so people would get bone cancers, and they would get anemias. And it was pretty deadly.

MONTAGNE: Well, you write, as an example, of this wealthy playboy who was so enthusiastic about it that he took way, way more times the amount of radiated tonic a day that he should of - died a horrible death but also was buried in a...

KANG: ... a lead-lined coffin (laughter)...

MONTAGNE: ...Because his bones were so radioactive.

KANG: Yes. Even Marie Curie's papers that she worked on - because she would carry radium around with her in her pocket - her papers are still kept and lead because they are radioactive as well.

MONTAGNE: There are all kinds of disturbing treatments for troublesome babies - teething babies...

KANG: (Laughter) Oh, gosh.

MONTAGNE: ...Crying babies, including opium.

KANG: Yes. Opium was a main component of a lot of over-the-counter medicines that were specifically geared towards mothers and child caretakers who couldn't handle crying children. Opium was used in these elixirs to put these babies to sleep and, in some cases, killed them.

MONTAGNE: You know, Abraham Lincoln used to suffer terrible headaches. What did he take for that?

KANG: So he was taking mercury. In particular, it was something called blue mass, which was elemental mercury like that silvery, metal liquid that people used to play with when their thermometers broke. They would pound it and combine it with these good-tasting herbs. We don't know 100 percent for sure if they are completely responsible for moodiness in him. But a lot of the information from the time tells us that he would have these mood spells. And he was taking blue mass at the time, so one does wonder if the mercury did something bad to his mental health.

MONTAGNE: Is there a story that you found particularly fascinating in writing this book, "Quackery?"

KANG: Well, I have to say that the information on cannibalism and corpse medicine was probably one of my favorites because it's so particularly horrific. People would drink the blood of gladiators. Egyptian tombs were being pillaged for mummies so that they could grind them up into these cures. They were mixed with myrrh and spices and sold in England. And there was even an import tax at the time because there were so many mummies being imported.

MONTAGNE: And of course though, many of these really gruesome cures didn't work at all. But some of them can be used today to really do something, to really help medically.

KANG: Yes. Maybe not mercury, for instance, but arsenic which we think of as the poison that kings would use to kill each other - arsenic today is used as a current treatment for promyelocytic leukemia. And I think a lot of people would be pretty shocked to hear that. Opium, we know, has a long history and still exists today for good and for bad. A lot of these other things like leeches can be used by some surgeons to help - in post-surgical patients to, you know, reduce swelling so that the surgerized tissues survive. So it is shocking to find that a lot of these things still are alive and well in our pharmacopoeias and in our hospitals.

MONTAGNE: But a little more delicately used.

(LAUGHTER)

KANG: Better packaged, better studied, better understood.

MONTAGNE: Dr. Lydia Kang is co-author with Nate Peterson of "Quackery: A Brief History Of The Worst Ways To Cure Everything." Thank you very much for joining us.

KANG: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.