Snake Oil, Willow Bark, Reefer, and Needles: Alternative Medicine and its Triumphs, Follies, and Charlatans: by Jack Quinn

Word count: 1604


A lot of words come to mind at the mention of “alternative medicine” – some of them good, some of them bad, and some of them too ambiguous to call either way. Alt med has always existed as a second option for those who felt conventional medicine was not right for them, for whatever reason – but with the advent of the information age, it has been pushed out onto the mainstream. Late-night television ads proclaim the merits of magnetic bracelets, afternoon talk show gurus yammer on about the merits of this diet or that one, infomercials flood the airwaves with testimonials from supposed patients claiming of cure-alls, prime-time salesmen make their pitch as to why you need to take this supplement or that one, and washed-up chiropractors flood bookstores with tomes proclaiming to hold the secret to a long, happy, conventional medicine-free life. This would be a free market issue, were it not for the risks its less-than-honest practitioners pose to those seeking genuine cures to what ails them. Many people have followed the advice of a naturopath, only to wind up uncured, hospitalized, or very, very dead. As far as the field’s reputation goes, it is widely regarded as a crapshoot; it has indeed made some rather significant contributions to mainstream medical theory and practice over the years, but its reliance on tradition, old wives’ tales, and pseudoscience – not to mention the hucksters in its midst, its almost complete lack of regulation or credentialed peer review, and its disdain for evidence-based approaches to medicine – has turned many medical authorities off of it.

The History

Before we get into the specifics, it is best to start off with a brief history of alternative medicine. It is quite difficult to pinpoint when exactly alternative medicine began, because for so long, many respected practitioners used methods that would be considered highly unconventional or even dangerous today. Medieval European doctors practiced bloodletting, treated many aches and pains with herbal remedies, and operated on the theory of humors, which stated that the human body was composed of four fluids – yellow bile, black bile, blood, and phlegm. This theory posited that all maladies were the result of an imbalance of these four fluids. A good deal of this – humorism, in particular – was derived from what little classical Greek and Roman knowledge the doctors were able to get their hands on. Much of this was rendered laughably ineffective during the Black Plague, where approximately a third of Europe’s population was eradicated – as a desperate measure, doctors were known to wear beaked masks with poesies stuffed into the snout, so as to help mask the stench of the bodies.

Alternative medicine as many of us know it today, with all its associated razzle-dazzle and showmanship, only began to really get off the ground in the late 19th century, when advances in the sciences began to refine conventional medicine into its current form. In “The Golden Age of Quackery”, with no regulations or laws to hinder them, enterprising businessmen began to concoct implausibly potent cure-alls, often containing some kind of narcotic such as morphine, opium, or hashish to elevate the patient’s mood and alleviate their pain. “It soothes the child, softens the gums, allays all pain, cures wind and colic, and is the best remedy for diarrhea,” claimed proponents of Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, one of the many such tinctures on the market. Tragically, there is little record of any good coming out of these cure-alls, and far too many records of deaths and drug addictions. Many cases of morphine dependency came out of the use of Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, and it was all too common for an unknowing parent to give a fussy baby a fatal dose. With the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906 and the establishment of new, more stringent regulations along with it, these charlatans found themselves out of business and forced to go at their trade another way, and many of them found one. Many took advantage of the less-stringent requirements for supplements, marketing their products as part of a healthy lifestyle rather than as a drug to treat any one specific disease. Others found a place for themselves in naturopathy or chiropractic practices.

The Good

Before we initiate our castigation of modern alternative medicine, we must temper our criticisms with the acknowledgement that alternative methods of treatment have, on occasion, brought many helpful advances to the table. One of the more notable of these advances is Aspirin. The active ingredient of Aspirin, salicylic acid, is found in willow bark, and has been used to treat aches and pains dating back to the ancient Egyptians. After many stops and starts, salicylic acid was refined into acetylsalicylic acid by Charles Fredric Gerhardt in 1853, then further refined by Felix Hoffmann in 1897. Today, Aspirin is known the world over for its anti-inflammatory and painkilling abilities, and is possibly the world’s most successful nonprescription drug.

Aspirin isn’t the only contribution that more unorthodox practitioners have made to the state of medicine. Leeches were popular among many medieval doctors for bloodletting – in essence, letting “bad blood” out of the body in order to balance out a patient’s humors. Today, leeches are still used in many operations; from helping burn victims recover from their skin grafts to cleaning up many an accidental amputee’s wound in preparation for an attempted reattachment. Their saliva contains a powerful anticoagulant that prevents clotting, allowing for continuous blood circulation and new vein growth. In addition, they produce a natural anesthetic, making the procedure pain-free for the patient (Opfer 2014). In the same vein, many doctors today apply disinfected maggots to wounds in an attempt to clean it – the maggots consume dead tissue while leaving live tissue intact, reducing the risk that the wound will become infected.

The Bad

Unfortunately, while alternative medicine has led to a few significant developments in conventional medicine, it has also ended the lives of many people – many of whom had conditions that conventional medical science could have treated easily. So far, there have been over 350,000 recorded fatalities, over 300,000 recorded injuries, and almost three billion dollars in economic damages incurred because of the prescription of unproven, untested alternative medicine techniques. In addition, a medical study by a group of Korean researchers concluded that cancer patients who turned to alternative medicine to the exclusion of conventional medicine led to significantly worse cognitive functioning than nonusers, as well as increased fatigue. A similar Norwegian study concluded that contemporary and alternative medicine (CAM, for short) use in terminal cancer patients actually increased the death rate (Ernst, 2013). There have simply been far too many deaths at the hands of alternative medicine to call any of the currently used methods viable.

In addition, some of their methods work only through the placebo effect, if at all. One of the most famous offenders of this is homeopathy – essentially a theory of alternative medicine that operates on the principle of “like cures like”. Because of the fact that many homeopathic remedies use incredibly toxic substances for their active ingredients, this would be incredibly dangerous if not for the fact that the concentration of those active ingredients are usually incredibly dilute – magician James Randi has often made a show of downing cartons of homeopathic sleeping pills with no ill effects whenever he is scheduled at a large speaking event. It is these kinds of stunts that prove homeopathy – and many other kinds of alternative medicine – are nothing more than showpieces and buzzwords for chiropractors and naturopaths to get rich off of.


Time and again, alternative medicine has had a chance to stand on its merits and prove itself to the conventional medicine community. More often than not, it has failed spectacularly, and in many cases, tragically – too common is the story of the patient who sought out “natural” remedies for a cancer that could have been easily treated with conventional chemotherapy and died as a result. The simple fact is that there is a difference between alternative medicine and conventional medicine at their very core – alternative medicine is largely driven by traditions, fads, hand-me-down remedies, and showmanship, whereas conventional medicine is based on cold, hard facts. If that sounds reactionary to you, or like the words of a stubborn old man stuck in his ways, I urge you to consider that this is not some leisurely game these practitioners are playing. People’s lives and livelihoods depend on their decisions, and very few of the methods these alternative medicine practioners used have been scientifically proven as safe or even remotely effective. So long as this core difference stands, there can be little reconciliation between the two disciplines. In short – no matter how people may try to package it, modern alternative medicine is just old-time snake oil that’s found a way to look good in closeups on the small screen.



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Medicine in the Middle Ages. (n.d.). . Retrieved June 1, 2014, from


Nostradamus was most famous Plague Doctor during Black Death years. (2009, September 2). . Retrieved June 1, 2014, from


History of Aspirin. (2010, January 1). . Retrieved June 1, 2014, from


Opfer, C. (n.d.). Are leeches being used in modern medicine?. . Retrieved June 1, 2014, from


Mrs. Wilson’s Soothing Syrup Bottle. (n.d.). . Retrieved June 1, 2014, from


The World Of Shakespeare’s Humors. (n.d.). . Retrieved June 1, 2014, from


What’s the Harm?. (n.d.). . Retrieved June 1, 2014, from


Ernst, E. (2013, April 18). Cancer patients who use alternative medicine die sooner. . Retrieved June 1, 2014, from


What is Homeopathy?. (2011, June 29). . Retrieved June 1, 2014, from


Paperpushing, Pencils, and Pills: How The American School System Fails Young Boys. Addressed to concerned parents and pediatricians.

Concerned parents:

There is an epidemic of hypochondria sweeping the nation. Perfectly healthy schoolboys are being pulled out of classrooms, subjected to a barrage of tests, and having medications shoved down their throats, whether they like it or not.

I should know. I was one of them.

I don’t remember who got the ball rolling. My sister has said it was my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Mackey, who first opined that I was more hyperactive and distractible than any of the other kids in my class and started me and my family on that long, long journey, bouncing from counselor to psychologist to psychiatrist like Tinkers to Evers to Chance. To this day she remains the most likely candidate – but how can I say for sure? I wasn’t older than six; my priorities consisted of pretending to take spelling tests seriously and not static-shocking myself after going down the playground slide. All I can remember beyond any doubt is that, for a time in elementary school, my family talked to a lot of nearsighted men in pressed dress shirts, and soon I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit/Hyperactive Disorder. After the diagnosis, my mother brought home a small bottle of medicine. CONCERTA was printed along the side of it in small black letters, and I was instructed to take two pills every morning before I headed out to school.

It was awful.

First, you must understand a few key points – chief among them being that I was given no choice in the matter. I had too much energy for a 64-year-old kindergarten teacher to handle, so off to the counselor I went. It was my word against hers, and she won out. It was the same with the Concerta – if I didn’t like the side effects of 108 milligrams of methylphenidate being crammed down my throat every morning, I could shove it, lest a teacher come back with a less-than-favorable report of my conduct in the classroom. The drugs left me in a state close to something you’d see in a Romero zombie – on an ordinary school day, you could find me shambling around, my sentences slow and unfocused, almost in a dream-like state until something or someone snapped me out of it. It was years before I mustered up the courage to stop taking them.

I was not alone in this. Diagnoses of ADHD are on the rise, with young boys being diagnosed at over twice the rate of young girls. The controversies inherent in this are many – primary school lessons are often dictated rather than hands-on and therefore favor girls over boys, who, as a result, may become bored and find it difficult to focus. In turn, they are referred to a psychiatrist, who is often paid only after a diagnosis is made, and will go home with empty pockets should they decide there is nothing wrong with their patient. Supplying that psychiatrist is a pharmaceutical company, which is forever cursed to mind its bottom line, and puts out drugs like Concerta to help them do so.

So why do we do this? Why is the American school system so complicit in slapping diagnoses on perfectly healthy boys, parading them in front of psychiatrist after psychiatrist, and then, when the damage is done – leave it to the parents to strip them of all agency, shove pills down their throat (whether they like it or not), and declare the mission accomplished when the child is close to sedated?

There has to be a better way.

There is a better way.

Understand this: I am by no means saying that young boys need no guidance, or that they would be cherubs if only the world would stand back. It would be foolish of us to deny their inherent aggression and near-boundless energy – when left unchecked, they can be violent and ruthless little things, pint-sized destroyers of worlds. I am only saying that, when channeled properly, this aggression and energy can lead to amazing things. So often we think of aggression in negative terms – we associate it with violence and criminals, of those unfit for a place in an orderly society. When we do this, we forget that it was not meekness that charted the lands and oceans, that brought dictators to their knees, or that drove the genius of invention. By effectively tranquilizing our young boys, we are forfeiting one of the greatest resources we possess.

But instead of standing idly by as this happens, we can pressure the school systems to do something about this. You can lobby your local officials for more rigorous exercise programs, increased recess times, and more hands-on teaching for boys. I have no doubt that if we can change our educational models to adapt to these boys and to harness and direct their aggression, we will be astounded at what they can accomplish. And if you must medicate your children – why not give them a say in it? Why not thoroughly educate them on the benefits and the side effects inherent in such a treatment plan, and let them decide for themselves whether it is something they would want to subject themselves to, in lieu of an alternative? Why not ensure that a proper dosing regimen is followed, instead of giving them doses that would be fit to tranquilize a horse right off the bat? Both your child and their classroom must mold to each other if a teacher is to have a hope of success – but if institutionalization and bureaucracy have hardened the classroom into a hunk of granite, what hope does any child have but to be crushed against it?