Snake Oil

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The term snake oil has come to refer to a worthless preparation that is fraudulently claimed to cure many diseases and health conditions.

Snake oil products are often claimed, among others, to cure cancer or control cancer, cure HIV, cure the common cold, or eliminate arthritis pain and other types of inflammatory pain.

However, snake oil, during the latter 1800's, was an actual product.

The original snake oil was brought over to the United States by Chinese workers who went to work on building the transcontinental railroad. The workers would rub this oil onto their bodies to help soothe painful joints and muscles.

Soon, although they sneered at first, other workers began using the oil and found that it did provide some relief from joint pain.

The snake oil of the Chinese workers was oil derived from the Chinese water snake.

When traveling medicine salesmen heard of this "miraculous" pain killing oil, they soon began peddling their own versions.

The Chinese water snake was not available so they used whatever they could get their hands on, if they used anything at all.

bottle of old-time snake oil, claiming to contain rattlesake oil

Old-time Rattlesnake Oil: From the Yaquis Medicine Company. 50¢ a Bottle. Prepared from pure Rattlesnake Oil. The only company in the United States that makes the Genuine Article. A guaranteed cure for Rheumatism, whether Acute, Chronic, Sciatic, Neuralgic, or Inflammatory. Relieves Instantaneously and cures headache, neuralgia, toothache, earache, backache, swellings, sprains, sore chest, swelling of the throat, contracted cords and muscles, stiff joints, wrenches, dislocations, cuts and bruises. It quickly takes out the soreness and inflammation from corns, bunions, insect and reptile bites. The best external preparation for bicyclists and athletes!

Rattlesnake is likely to have been used, although most of the products probably contained no snake oil at all, but other ingredients intended to provide a bit of "bite" to the product, so that the user felt like it was doing something when rubbed into the skin. For instance, one famous huckster used camphor (also a component of the Chinese oil and still present in muscle and joint rubs) and pepper, with a bit of beef fat. Ironically, this preparation would have been somewhat similar to modern capsaicin preparations, and therefore, along with the counter-irritant properties of the camphor may have actually provided a modicum of pain relief, if the claims about capsaicin are true. The product was mostly mineral oil, though, and probably did not contain enough 'active' ingredient to be of any benefit. It is doubtful if any of the snake oils sold in traveling medicine shows actually had any effect on the body at all, except for a toxic effect.

early snake oil advertisment, Stanley Clark, aka, The Rattlensame King

The U.S. government, in 1919, actually tested this product sold by Clark Stanley, a.k.a The Rattlesnake King. It contained no EPA, nor oil from any species of snake. Instead, it was mostly mineral oil with a bit of camphor, beef fat, and pepper.1

Modern analysis of the Chinese water snake, enhydris chinensis, shows that it is rich in EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), an Omega 3 oil that the body converts to natural pain killers like series 3 prostoglandins. When the oil is absorbed into the skin, it is possible that the EPA present in the oil caused the body to produce these anti-inflammatory substances and therefore cause some relief from pain. The oils also contained camphor, however, which is itself capable of providing some temporary relief from minor aches. It is unlikely that the Chinese snake oil actually worked physically. A placebo effect may have been at work and the Chinese workers unshakeable faith in the oil may have slowly influenced the other workers to believe in it's power.

Regardless, it is not the original Chinese oil, which can still be found today in China, but the counterfeit knock-off products sold by the traveling medicine shows that it is the origin of the term as it is used today.

1. Kohler, Heinz. Caution: Snake Oil! : How Statistical Thinking Can Help Us Expose Misinformation about Our Health. Minneapolis, MN: Mill City, 2010.

This page created 24 May 2012 16:17
Last updated 18 Jul 2016 18:37

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