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Clark Stanley's Snake Oil

Snake oil is a traditional Chinese medicine made from the Chinese water snake (Enhydris chinensis), which is used to treat joint pain. However, the most common usage of the phrase is as a derogatory term for compounds offered as medicines that implies that they are fake, fraudulent, quackish, or ineffective. The expression is also applied metaphorically to any product with exaggerated marketing but questionable or unverifiable quality or benefit.

Contents

History

Snake oil originally came from China, where it is called shéyóu (). There, it was used as a remedy for inflammation and pain in rheumatoid arthritis, bursitis, and other similar conditions. Snake oil is still used as a pain reliever in China. Fats and oils from snakes are higher in eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) than other sources, so snake oil was actually a plausible remedy for joint pain, as these are thought to have inflammation-reducing properties.[citation needed] Snake oil is still sold in traditional Chinese pharmacy stores.

Snake fat also played a role in ancient Egyptian medicine, mixed with the fats of lion, hippopotamus, crocodile, tomcat, and Nubian ibex into a homogeneous mass believed to cause bald men to grow hair.[1]

Chinese labourers on railroad gangs involved in building the Transcontinental Railroad to link North America coast to coast gave snake oil to Europeans with joint pain. When rubbed on the skin at the painful site, snake oil was claimed to bring relief. This claim was ridiculed by rival medicine salesmen, especially those selling patent medicines. In time, snake oil became a generic name for many compounds marketed as panaceas or miraculous remedies whose ingredients were usually secret, unidentified, or mis-characterized and mostly inert or ineffective, although the placebo effect might provide some relief for whatever the problem might have been.

Patented snake oil remedies originated in England, where a patent was granted to Richard Stoughton's Elixir in 1712.[2] Since there was no federal regulation in the USA concerning safety and effectiveness of drugs until the 1906 Food and Drugs Act[3] and various medicine salesmen or manufacturers seldom had enough skills in analytical chemistry to analyze the contents of snake oil, it became the archetype of hoax. American snake fats have EPA contents markedly lower than those of the Chinese water snake. Thus, the American snake oils were even less effective in relieving joint pain than the original Chinese snake oil, further promoting the hoax stereotype.

The snake oil peddler became a stock character in Western movies: a travelling "doctor" with dubious credentials, selling some medicine (such as snake oil) with boisterous marketing hype, often supported by pseudo-scientific evidence, typically bogus. To enhance sales, an accomplice in the crowd (a shill) would often "attest" the value of the product in an effort to provoke buying enthusiasm. The "doctor" would prudently leave town before his customers realized that they had been cheated. This practice is also called "grifting" and its practitioners are called "grifters".

The practice of selling dubious remedies for real (or imagined) ailments still occurs today, albeit with some updated marketing techniques. Claims of cures for chronic diseases (for example, diabetes mellitus) for which there are reputedly only symptomatic treatments available from evidence-based medicine are especially common.[citation needed] The term snake oil peddling is used as a derogatory term to describe such practices.

An alternate theory for the origins of the term snake oil is that it was a corruption of Seneca oil. The Senecas, a tribe in the Eastern United States, were known to use petroleum from natural seeps as a liniment for skin ailments. However, Native Americans are known to have used rattlesnake fat and the herb snakeroot for various purposes.

Composition of snake oil

Snake oil tablets on sale at a market in Marrakech

The composition of snake oil medicines varies markedly between products.

Snake oil sold in San Francisco's Chinatown in 1989 was found [4] to contain:

The Chinese water snake (Enhydris chinensis) is the richest known source of EPA, the starting material the body uses to make the series 3 prostaglandins. These prostaglandins are the biochemical messengers that control some aspects of inflammation, rather like aspirin, which also affects the prostaglandin system. Like essential fatty acids, EPA can be absorbed through the skin. Salmon oil, the next best source, contains 18% EPA. Rattlesnake oil contains 8.5% EPA.

Stanley's snake oil—produced by Clark Stanley, the "Rattlesnake King"—was tested by the federal government in 1917. It was found[2] to contain:

(Note that this makes the above similar in composition to modern-day capsaicin-based liniments. Thus, this early snake oil may have worked somewhat as intended, even if it did not contain its alleged ingredients.)

In Italy, the term olio di vipera (literally viper oil) describes a mixture of olive oil and chili peppers, used as condiment on some foods for its strong spicy taste.

Claims of efficacy

Richard Kunin, a proponent of orthomolecular medicine, wrote a 1989 letter to the editor arguing that oil made from Chinese water snakes is very high in EPA.[5] This substance is known to be a pain reliever, and Kunin argued that it might provide an explanation for the traditional use of snake oil. Snake oil does not have the dubious reputation in China that it has in the US and elsewhere in the Western world, and it is used widely in traditional Chinese medicine. However, it is not seen as a panacea in China either; there, it is used only as relief for arthritis and joint pain.

Media adaptations

Poppy (1923 musical) 
W. C. Fields's film about a Western frontier American snake oil salesman complete with a surreptitious crowd accomplice. His demonstration from the back of a buckboard (transparently fraudulent to the movie audience) of a miraculous cure for hoarseness ignited a comic purchasing frenzy.
Disney's Pete's Dragon 
The greedy "Doc" Terminus, played by Jim Dale, gave a testament to the persuasive power of the snake oil salesman. Dealing with a crowd of people he had conned on a prior visit, Terminus turns them from angry vengeance seekers to believers once more, paying top dollar for Terminus's products despite their previous ineffectiveness.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer 
Mark Twain presents Aunt Polly as a true believer in various sorts of snake oil, though not always in the form of an alleged medicine. She also adopted cold showers as a cure-all at one point in Tom's childhood. For a time, she insisted that Tom Sawyer take a painkiller every day, simply because she thought it would be good for him; Tom finally gave some to Peter the housecat, who reacted to the dose with extreme and comic agitation. After seeing the cat vanish in a frenzy out the window, Aunt Polly no longer forced Tom to take the painkiller.
"Say Say Say"'s music video 
In a more modern appearance of grifting in pop culture, the collaboration of Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson in 1983 produced a music video for "Say Say Say", which depicts McCartney as the salesman selling a dubious strength elixir from the back of a truck and Jackson as his accomplice amongst the audience.
Beachcomber 
Many of J. B. Morton's books and radio programs included short spoof advertisements for Snibbo, a fictional treatment allegedly tackling various unlikely human conditions.
Flåklypa Grand Prix 
In this animated movie, Snake Oil is used as a name for a shady oil company.
Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas 
In this Muppet Christmas special, Emmet and Ma periodically reminisced about his deceased Pa, the unsuccessful snake oil salesman, because "Pa couldn't find anyone who would want to oil a snake."
Every Time I Die 
The New Junk Aesthetic CD uses a line in the song "Host Disorder" containing the term. "Open your heart to the snake oil peddlers".

English musician and comedy writer Vivian Stanshall satirized a miracle cosmetic as "Rillago—the great ape repellent".

The band Alkaline Trio has recorded a song entitled "Snake Oil Tanker".

Steve Earle recorded a song entitled "Snake Oil" for the album Copperhead Road.

The song "Please Come Home to Hamngatan" by The Mountain Goats from the album Ghana references snake oil and snake oil peddlers.

See also

References

  1. ^ "5. Recipes for the treatment of hair, pEbers 465". http://www.history.pku.edu.cn/person/yanhaiying/society/English/Ebers%20medical.htm. Retrieved 2010-01-22. 
  2. ^ a b Peddling Snake Oil; Investigative Files (Skeptical Briefs December 1998). Retrieved 2010-01-22.
  3. ^ FDA Consumer: The Long Struggle For The 1906 Law. Retrieved 2010-01-22.
  4. ^ Erasmus, Udo. Fats that heal: Fats that Kill. 1993, ISBN 0-920470-38-6
  5. ^ R A Kunin (August 1989 August). "Snake oil". West J Med. 151(2) (2): 208. PMID 2773477. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1026931/. Retrieved 2010-01-22. 

Further reading

  • Kunin, R.A. "Snake oil." West J Med. 1989 Aug; 151(2):208.

External links


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