Jul 07 2009
I find discussions of curious cures from the past particularly interesting these days as it always strikes me how little has changed. This show is another example of how people can marvel at the naivete of the public a century or more ago in the face of obvious patent medicine scams or bizarre medical treatments – and yet they are really no different than many alternative medicine and supplement industry claims of today.
The only thing that has changed, slightly, is the particulars of the marketing – the slogans and catch-phrases that were common. The advertisement for Parker’s Tonic asks, “Are you weary in brain and body?” and claims to work by “rejuvenating the blood.” This is actually less bizarre than therapeutic touch practitioners claiming to strengthen your human energy field.
Many remedies were sold through testimonials, especially from famous people or royalty. In the UK there is actually a continuous tradition of royalty lending their prestige to dubious remedies. Prince Charles is hawking his Duchy Original Detox Tincture - you can’t get more of a vibe of old patent medicine than that.
And of course the use of testimonials is key – you can find testimonials to support any product or claim that you wish. They are useful only for marketing.
The slide show depicts, “Baldwin’s Herbal Tonic Mixture, Nature’s general restorer of the system and purifier of the blood.” That is just slightly off of modern herbal products claiming to naturally detoxify the body. And yet it is acceptable to call Baldwin’s Tonic an example of a quack patent remedy, while modern hawkers of the same con have managed to convince much of the public that it is closed-minded and impolite to do so regarding it’s contemporary equivalent.
We also see electrical and magnetic quack devices – another theme that seems to recur with regularity in the quack medical device industry. Harness’ Electropathic Belts are “scientifically constructed,” and you can have a free consultation at the “Electropathic and Zander Institute” to treat your weakness. Wow – that can pass for an absolutely contemporary CAM clinic.
We also see a practitioner of “metallic tractors” which drew out “noxious substances” by “magnetic means.” This is a sort of combination of detox pads and magnetic bracelets. Very nice.
The exhibit will feature on this Friday, July 10th, not only shows (including a patent medicine show) but also lectures. Ben Goldacre will be lecturing on the placebo effect. This is awesome, and makes me wonder if the exhibiters get it – do they appreciate the fact that by showing quack remedies from the past and exposing how they were marketed, they are taking a swipe at their modern equivalent?
Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it – this is true enough in this case. There is much to learn from dubious remedies of the past. They teach us that millions can swear by treatments that we now know to be fraudulent and worthless, even harmful. We can see how such remedies are marketed with vague but pleasing slogans, how testimonials are used to deceive, and see that the themes which may seem new today (natural, detox, etc.) were old a century ago.
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