Snake Oil Has Long Been Deemed A ‘Fake Medicine’, But It’s Not Guilty, It Really Does Cure!
In the late 19th century, microscopes enabled scientists to observe the microbial effectivity of medicines in the treatment of ailments and these new skills finally dislodged many traditional ‘magical’ medieval medicines and treatments. This was not the case, however, in China, where still today thousands of tons of scorpions, freeze-dried millipedes, tiger penises, and rhino bones are consumed as medicines. Unfortunately, tied into this ancient matrix of hocus-pocus Traditional Chinese Medicines (TCMs) is a singular animal product that has been proven to work, even though it has become a term synonymous with quack cures - “snake oil”.
Advertisement for “Clar Stanley's Snake Oil Liniment.” Clark Stanley was born around 1854 in Abilene, Texas, and was the self-styled “Rattlesnake King” who was one of the first Americans to sell snake oil as a medicine. (Public Domain)
The phrase “Snake Oil Salesman” conjures up images of shady profiteers exploiting unsuspecting cowboy folk by selling them fake bottled cures. So ingrained in American culture is the idea that snake oil is a hoax, that in 2008 the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund took out full-page ads in The Washington Post to denounce then-President George W. Bush's plan to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, calling it “100 percent snake oil.” What is more, the Oxford English Dictionary defines snake oil as “a quack remedy or panacea” but this description is very shallow and inconsiderate and overlooks a largely forgotten chapter of Asian-American history. Notwithstanding, it also fails to account for the results of modern scientific tests.
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Photograph of Ross Nelson, American Historical Interpreter, dressed as “Professor Thaddeus Schmidlap”, a snake-oil salesman at the Enchanted Springs Ranch and Old West theme park, Boerne, Texas. (Public Domain)
Snake Oil Sails Across the Pacific
Native American cultures used snake parts in a wide range of medicinal and ritual applications, but historians generally agree that ‘snake oil’ was introduced to the US with the arrival of Chinese laborers who came to build the Transcontinental Railroad in the mid-1800s. According to historian Richard White's book Railroaded, “about 180,000 Chinese immigrated to the United States between 1849 and 1882.” The Chinese railroad workers would rub snake oil on their joints after long cumbersome days at work and they began sharing the oil with American’s who were said to have “marveled at the effects.”
Snake oil salesmen and traveling doctors became archetypal characters in American Western movies, in which they pedaled bottles of ‘useless’ rattlesnake oil as placebos and panaceas to ailed, ill, and often desperate people. But the snake oil used in ancient Chinese folk remedies had been used to successfully treat joint pain such as arthritis, bursitis, and other joint pains for almost 3000 years. How and when, then, did the effective traditional Chinese cure lose its medicinal properties?
Chinese emigration to America: sketch on board the steam-ship Alaska heading for San Francisco. From Views of Chinese first published in ‘The Graphic’ and ‘Harper's Weekly’. April 29, 1876. (Public Domain)
The answer to this problem lies in the fact that in the late 19th century Americans stopped using the traditional Chinese snake oil and began taking oil from the readily available American rattlesnake. While this species has no measurable health properties, in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) fats were extracted from the Chinese water snake which a 1980s study found to be “full of omega-3 fatty acids.” Proven to reduce inflammation (which can lead to arthritis), omega-3 fatty acids also reduces blood pressure. The 1980s experiments were conducted by Professor Richard Kunin, a Californian psychiatrist with a background in neurophysiological research, who, according to an article in Scientific American, claims old snake oil salesmen might been peddling “rich sources of omega-3’s found in cold-blooded creatures inhabiting cooler environments.”
Testing his theory, Kunin procured snake oil from San Francisco's Chinatown and also “two live rattlesnakes” from which Kunin extracted the fat sacks. According to his 1989 analysis which was published in the Western Journal of Medicine, “Chinese water-snake oil contains 20 percent eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), one of the two types of omega-3 fatty acids most readily used by our bodies.” Rattlesnakes had only “8.5 percent EPA” and while salmon is a great source of omega-3’s, Kunin proved that it contains “a maximum of 18 percent EPA, lower than that of snake oil.”
Salmon oil capsules contain a high content of triglycerides, which contain omega-3 fatty acid residues. (CC BY SA 4.0)
Similar studies in Japan rendered oil from Erabu sea snakes, which belong to the same species as the Chinese water snake, and determined that this snake was also packed with Omega-3s. According to a study presented in Very Well Health in 2007, a Japanese study in mice “showed mice had improved abilities when ingesting snake oil rendered from those Erabu snakes over those mice who were fed only lard.”
Where Might Traditional Chinese Treatments be Going Wrong?
Snake oil, therefore, is on the short list of TCMs that have been proven to have actual observable health benefits, along with, for example, Ginger and Ginseng. But this list could be written on the “back of a cigarette packet’, while the list of supernaturally charged brews, magic potions, and spiritual lotions is virtually endless. While snake oil prepared correctly can help the human body, tiger penis and rhino horn, for example, which are believed to help with male erectile dysfunction and a low sperm count, are scientifically proven to be utterly useless in the treatment of these common medical complaints.
Looking at how low sperm count is addressed by medics in the west and in China reveals the systematic failings of some of the aspects of TCMs.
An article on EuYanSang.com explains that in both Western medicine and TCM a low sperm count is based on both clinical symptoms and analysis results of “fewer than 15 million sperm per milliliter of semen.” In Western medicine low sperm count is diagnosed as ‘Oligospermia’ and it is directly correlated with negative lifestyle choices like drugs, alcohol, and smoking. Less obvious activities like strenuous cycling and riding and the consumption of certain pharmaceutical medications all add to the depletion of sperm count.
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On the other hand, in the mystical world of TCM, practitioners interpret low sperm count as relating to kidney function, which they believe stores “kidney qi” (essential energy) which in turn controls reproductive functions. According to the Huangdi Neijing, the fundamental doctrinal source for Chinese medicine for the last 2000 years, a 16-year-old male’s kidney qi is abundant with ‘tian kui’ (fertility essence) and he is able to have children. At 40, however, kidney qi is thought to decline and after the age of 48, the body’s reduced yang (vital essence) and kidney qi makes it difficult for him to have children.
Where Western doctors advise ‘lifestyle changes’ to improve circulation, among other physical benefits which increase sperm count, Eastern medics focus on treating an unmeasurable energy. Of course, when the sufferer cannot actually measure their own perceived energy levels against a scale, chart or printed result of any sort, they are at the mercy of their medics who prescribes (and sell) expensive doses of rhino bone and powdered tiger penis. After three weeks of Yoga (intense stretching), and ingestion of these magical potions, patients are told that a treatment has worked - which causes the placebo effect to hammer in. This, on top of the healthy lifestyle change (yoga), often causes dramatic changes in health and increased sperm count, but these benefits are unfortunately corresponded with the magical ‘spiritual power' of the tiger’s penis and the virility provided by the esoteric invisible energy of rhino bone, and not to the patients becoming fitter.
Traditional Chinese medicine shop in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, Hong Kong. Thousands of products all aim to treat "qi, meridians, and acupuncture points” which all scientific investigations have failed to measure. (CC BY SA 3.0)
The mass marketing of hocus TCMs, which fly in the face of modern science and technology, are directly responsible for commercial failure of snake oil, which is one of only a handful of TCMs that have been proven to work, medically, without the need for “qi” energy and meridians, and of course, the incredibly powerful effects of placebo. It may be time that snake oil is rebranded as ‘serpent fat’ or some such derivative in an attempt to bring bygone relief to arthritis sufferers all over the world.
Top Image: Snake oil in Sapa. Source: Jeremy Weate/CC BY 2.0
By Ashley Cowie
Eu Yan Sang (2018) ‘Erectile Dysfunction: Boosting Male Fertility with TCM. Eu Yan Sang. Available at: https://www.euyansang.com/en_US/boosting-male-fertility-with-tcm/eysmhdysfunction2.html
Graber, C. (2007) ‘Snake Oil Salesmen Were on to Something.’ Scientific American. Available at: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/snake-oil-salesmen-knew-something/
Torry, T. (2018) Reviewed by Richard N. Fogoros, MD, The History of Snake Oil. Available at: https://www.verywellhealth.com/history-of-snake-oil-2614974
The Washington Post. (2008) ‘Snake Oil.’ The Washington Post. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/08/11/AR2008081102145.html?noredirect=on
White, R. (2012) Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America. W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition.