Episode 136: Patent Medicine

On this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Gem, Laura, Ashlyn, and Lauren discuss the history and future of patent medicine, from snake oil and Piso’s Cure for Consumption through Bovinine and bitters all the way to the Burzynski Clinic.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a podcast that delves into issues of science, critical thinking, and secular humanism.

Note: Additional music in this episode by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0.

Patent Medicine: Patent medicine (Wikipedia) | Snake oil (Wikipedia)

Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound: Advertising Motherhood with the Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Company (Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study) | Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound (The Embryo Project Encyclopedia) | Lydia Pinkham (Wikipedia)

Piso’s Consumption Cure: The Great American Fraud, by Samuel Hopkins Adams (Wikisource) | Piso’s Trio: One Step Ahead of the Law (Federation of Historical Bottle Collectors)

Micajah’s Medicated Wafers: Micajah’s Medicated Wafers (Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health) | The Fundamental Antagonism: Veritism and Commerce in Medical Practice (Bennett Holman)

Bovinine: Bovinine (National Museum of American History) | Bovinine Beef Food Tonic (National Museum of American History) | The Bovinine Co. blotter (National Museum of American History) | 15 Curious Quack Remedies From the Age of Patent Medicine (Mental Floss) | Bovinine, by the Bovinine Company (Google Books) | Bovinine Bottle | New Haven Morning Journal and Courier (1895-06-19) | Hand Book of Haematherapy with Clinical Reports, 1902, by the Bovinine Company | The Medical Times and Register (Google Books) | The Popular Science News and Boston Journal of Chemistry (Google Books) | Hemotherapy (Wikipedia) | Misbranding of Bovinina. U.S. v. Bovinine Co. (National Library of Medicine)

Soda Pop & Bitters: Angostura bitters (Wikipedia) | ‘Pop’ Culture: Patent Medicines Become Soda Drinks (CSI) | A Brief History of Bitters (Smithsonian)

Right to Try and the Burzynski Clinic: Right-to-try law (Wikipedia) | “Right to try” laws and Dallas Buyers’ Club: Great movie, terrible for patients and terrible policy (Science-Based Medicine) | The cruel sham that is right-to-try raises its ugly head at the federal level again (Science-Based Medicine) | Burzynski Clinic (Wikipedia)

Ian James and the Combo Breakers: The Broken Among Us by Ian James and the Combo Breakers (SoundCloud) | The Broken Among Us by Ian James and the Combo Breakers (BandCamp)

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Natural Remedies Never Kill?

Cross-posted from Startled Disbelief.

"Medicine" Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

Hey, look! Another completely absurd and almost fact-free article from syndicated columnist Dr. Ken Walker (who writes under the name W. Gifford-Jones):

“Health Canada has been raiding health-food stores, terrorizing proprietors and confiscating natural food supplements,” Dr. Zoltan Rona, an expert on natural remedies, recently told me.

Walker’s article is alt-med propaganda at its most pedestrian. He presents those who peddle “natural remedies” as embattled heroes who are being bullied by Health Canada, which is in the pocket of corporate interests. I find this especially amusing, given that Health Canada has recently been censured for its decision to loosen the licensing requirements for natural health products while bypassing important safety and efficacy checks. (A decision that heavily favours corporate interests, yes: the corporate interests of the multinational corporations who manufacture and distribute natural health products.)

It’s been a while since I’ve played Name That Logical Fallacy, but let’s see… The reader is presented with a false dichotomy in the form of a choice between corporate-controlled pharmaceutical medicine and feel-good “natural” remedies; the deaths resulting from the use of pharmaceutical interventions hint at the fallacy of the perfect solution (the government shouldn’t approve drugs that aren’t perfectly safe and perfectly effective); there’s at least one appeal to antiquity (Nattokinase “has been used for centuries” in Japan); and finally there’s Walker’s completely dishonest (or unforgivably ignorant) claim that “prescription drugs can kill, natural remedies never”: while this isn’t a fallacy, it is the false premise that lies at the very heart of the article.

Walker’s point seems to be that Health Canada should just get out of the way: if the remedy is “natural” (whatever that means) and/or has been used for a long time, its safety and efficacy are unimpeachable. Walker seems to be advocating for some sort of medical free market paradise, a deregulated Wild West of frontier medicine in which the government gives any old snake oil a free pass—snake oil, of course, being completely natural.

“Alternative” medicines can and do kill, directly and indirectly. Natural remedies often lack proper controls to prevent contamination or adulteration; herbal remedies are drugs, and their use in concert with pharmaceuticals can result in unexpected drug interactions; the dose of the active ingredient in herbal remedies is often inconsistent or highly variable (while it is precisely controlled in pharmaceuticals; that’s sort of the point); and when presented with a “natural alternative”, some patients may eschew science-based interventions (that are actually effective). If you’re looking for heart-wrenching stories of people killed as a result of so-called “natural” medicine, here are a couple hundred of them. “Alternative medicine” is most often simply an alternative to medicine.

Walker should be ashamed of himself for promoting such absurdities. But that’s nothing new.