Snake oil actually works.
Did you know that? I didn’t until recently. “Snake oil” has become a byword for useless and even harmful products that are marketed on the basis of false claims. When you call something “snake oil,” you’re saying it doesn’t live up to its hype. There is a lot of snake oil in modern life: spiritual snake oil, political snake oil, organizational and corporate snake oil, even conspiracy theory snake oil. Bullshit abounds under many brand names.
Except … actual snake oil, which really does work. Confused? Stay with me.
First, a little biochemistry. Some of you, like me, take a fish oil supplement in hopes of upping your intake of healthful Omega-3 fatty acids. When catalyzed in the body, Omega-3 fatty acids break down into two long-chain acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexenoic acid (DHA). If you look at the back of your bottle of fish oil, you might even see a nutritional listing for these components.
EPA is wonderful stuff that we hardly get enough of in the typical American diet. (The reason for that is a topic for another post.) It is beneficial to the cardiovascular system in many ways, as well as the nervous system and the immune system. EPA can be an effective remedy for depression. EPA has strong anti-inflammatory properties, whether taken internally … or absorbed through the skin.
This last point is the key. If you had sore muscles, achy and inflamed; or joints creaky with bursitis or arthritis, say, from a long day of building transcontinental railroads; then rubbing some oil infused with EPA would be an effective remedy for reducing the swelling and pain.
In fact, such an ointment has been used for centuries in Chinese medicine. It is derived, not from a fish, but from another cold-blooded aquatic creature, the black-banded sea krait. And so it was that when the early Chinese immigrants came to America and found work in the grueling occupation of building railroad across the mountains and prairies, they attended to their aching muscles and joints with a liniment from the old country—snake oil. They used it because it worked.
But this pain-relieving and muscle-soothing ointment was a problem for certain folks. Not because it was derived from the oils of innocent snakes, but because it cut into the market for the patent medicine business that was booming in the Wild West. Patent medicines were cheap concoctions of supposedly exotic ingredients, laced with opium or cocaine or cannabis or infused into grain alcohol or mineral oil. They were sold as cures for every illness then known. But in fact, they were largely ineffective and often harmful and even fatal.
How do you grow your market share when you keep killing your regular customers? Paint your strongest competitor’s product with the blackest brush you can find. Scoff at the idea of “oil from snakes.” Mock the immigrants who use it. Make the term “snake oil” a synonym for “eyewash” and “bullshit.” “Competition is sin,” said John D. Rockefeller—so make the other guy’s product seems sinful.
Or, do what his daddy did: copy the competition’s formula, but use cheaper ingredients. And so some of the hucksters developed their own “snake oil,” but instead of compounding it from sea snakes rich in Omega 3 fatty acids (due to dwelling in colder habitats that promote production of Omega-3 over Omega-6), the quacks used plain old ornery rattlesnakes that they found around the American West. Whose bodies were much lower in EPA content. Or like Clark Stanley, they used plain old mineral oil. These ineffective nostrums, marketed under the name “snake oil,” served only to destroy the reputation of the original Chinese medicine completely.
While we’re on the subject of mineral oil quackery, let’s get back to the oil family. For it was William Rockefeller, Sr., patriarch of that dynasty, that got the family into the pharmaceutical business. One of his ventures was precisely in the field of patent medicine. He sold Nujol, which was simply unrefined petroleum in a bottle. It was touted as a remedy for cancer, but it caused more carcinomas than it ever cured. Later it was marketed as a laxative: in this application it was effective, but at the cost of stripping oil-soluble nutrients out of the body. Eventually Nujol was limited to industrial uses only. The product still exists. Curiously, Nujol’s Wikipedia entry does not mention its history as a killer concoction, except via an external link. Likewise, the Wikipedia entry for William Rockefeller, Sr. trips lightly past his misdeeds as a peddler of poison.
The Rockefellers continued on in the patent medicine business. One of the by-products of petroleum refining is benzene, and benzenes are the building blocks from which most every modern prescription drug is made. And so the Rockefellers developed benzene-based drugs, while at the same time lavishing their oil profits on medical schools around America. On the condition, of course, that the schools receiving these funds also emphasized the use of benzene-based drugs as the sole regimen for cures.
Their legacy is the hyper-prescribing health system we have today in the USA, based on the distribution of pharmaceuticals, to the exclusion of any other healing modality. Makia Freeman summed it up nicely: “Western medicine is Rockefeller medicine.” When you go to an MD, you are visiting a vendor for benzene-based concoctions … but what your body probably needs is better food and not petroleum. More vitamins and minerals. More essential amino acids and fatty acids. More EPA. In other words, what your body needs is more genuine snake oil, and not that fake oil of the two-legged sales-snakes.
But this series of essays is not about health advice or even the medical-industrial complex. It is about the power of perception, and how easy it is to distort. And how certain groups have made it their standard operating practice to conquer by subversion and blackwashing.
Snake oil actually works … but I never knew that, because someone over a century ago worked quite hard to subvert the good name of the product and has worked since then to suppress the science behind it.
Guess what else works better than Bill Rockefeller’s petroleum substitute?