Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

02 October 2009

Of Cures, Half Cures and No Cures at All

The soothing influence of The Green Mountain Ointment was immediately apparent following application, and in most instances permanent cures of an astonishing variety of ailments were effected.

These included ague in the face, swelled breasts, bronchitis, quinsy, croup, felons (a purulent infection at the distal end of the finger), shingles, salt rheum, piles, milk-leg sores, erysipelas, and inflammation of the eyes and bowels. No other ointment in existence was of equal power and it was available in 1850 from Messrs Armstrong and Hurd at No 38 Courtlandt Street, New York.

At a stroke, it seemed, whole swaths of the medical profession were rendered redundant by this splendid remedy, but The Green Mountain Ointment had fallen short when it came to cancer; either that or its promoters had missed a trick.

But the good times were coming. Fifty years later there appeared, in a 1902 copy of The Cosmopolitan, an illustrated monthly magazine (which happens to be in my collection) two advertisements offering typical cancer cures. In the first, Dr. W. J. P. Kingsley (also of New York - where else?) claimed to have perfected the quickest, easiest, cheapest and most scientific cure whereby even ‘the largest’ cases were cured within a few weeks. This modest piece of publicity was followed, a few pages later, by an exhortation from Dr. Ben-Bye of Indianopolis to purchase his ‘soothing, balmy oils’ which would cure ‘cancer or tumor - internal or external’.

The Green Mountain Ointment and the remedies of both Dr. Kingsley and Dr. Ben-Bye have sunk without trace, and along with them such other medical ‘breakthroughs’ as The Health-Jolting Chair; Dr. Scott’s Electric Corset; and Merritt Griffin’s Indian Salve, a specific for the cure of among other things tumours and running-sores.

All of those ‘snake oil’ era remedies have disappeared for one reason - they didn’t work. But no doubt for the brief periods that they offered hope to clutchers at straws their inventors and touters cleaned up nicely without let or hindrance and moved on to brighter, better, more state-of-the-art rip-off products and marketing techniques.

Of course, there were ‘cures’. The mind does marvellous things and faith can, as the song says, move mountains - even Green Mountains, perhaps. But those old nostrums were never tested in the rigours of scientific or statistical research and so, when they didn’t actually kill, their successes were trumpeted from those recoveries which would probably have happened anyway in the natural course of events.

These days, in the ‘civilized’ world, the conjunction of the desperate sufferer with the ‘have-I-got-a-cure-for-you’ medicine man is severely proscribed by the intervention of a paternal, government authority and we ordinary lay-people are protected from exploitation and danger.

But despite that, in modern memory, some things have got through. Remember Milan Brych, the sad-faced little middle-European doctor of the 1970s who caused so much hollow controversy with his secret cancer remedy? How much false hope did he generate before the government’s watchdogs finally shut him down? And how many people might still believe in him?

Remember also Laetrile, wonder cure of the 80s? Made from apricot kernels ‘fresh, chewable and bitter’ (for best effect) it continues to be offered on the Internet as a necessity: as a therapy for existing cancer between twenty and fifty per day are recommended (with scientific precision); or take a mere seven a day for absolute prevention.

For those at their wits’ ends the insistence of the administrators of New Zealand’s Medicines Act that new cures be thoroughly tested must be enormously frustrating. And to we more fortunate onlookers the man from the Ministry might appear to be a tight-faced tormentor against the pleas of the needy, but he must stick to his guns, if he lets one unproved medicine slip through the net he will have no argument against The Green Mountain Ointment and we shall have no protection from Dr Ben-Bye’s ‘soothing, balmy oils’.
A cancer doctor of my acquaintance tells me that two percent of new cancer cures prove effective enough to make a therapeutic claim. Meanwhile desperate sufferers will continue to clutch at straws; who can blame them?



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By Don Donovan

About Me

My photo

Don Donovan: Biography

I was born on 20 January 1933, nine days before Hitler came to power in Germany, I grew up in south London. Although evacuated during the phoney war and the quieter times I lived in and out of air raid shelters during the blitz and experienced both V1 and V2 attacks on London. Left grammar school in 1948 aged 15 substantially undereducated. I wanted to go to art school but because of family ‘poverty’ joined a commercial art studio in the West End. I was, thereafter, variously a messenger boy, commercial artist and typographer. I was in the Royal Air Force from 1951 to 1953 when the only useful thing I did was to take part in King George VI’s funeral parade.

In 1955 I married Patricia O’Donnell, a RADA graduate, at that time playing opposite Derek Nimmo, they were juvenile leads in a touring repertory company. He went on to great success because he had a funny voice.

We came to New Zealand in 1960 where I worked in advertising. At length I became managing director of one of the companies of whose holding company (the largest domestic advertising complex in New Zealand) I was also a proprietor and shareholder. I left the industry in 1990 when my company was bought out by American interests. My timing was brilliant, at that point my first book had been published and the next was on its way.

We have two daughters and four grand-children.

Now, apart from writing, I function as a self-educated grumpy old man.

Books & Writings

‘New Zealand Odyssey’, with Euan Sarginson, Heinemann-Reed, 1989.

‘One Man’s Heart Attack’, New House, 1990. (A special edition of this book was purchased by CIBA-Geigy for distribution to NZ doctors).

‘Open 7 Days’, Random Century, October 1991.

‘The Good Old Kiwi Pub’ by Saint Publishing in 1995 followed by:
‘New Zealand House & Cottage’ in 1997. (Saint Publishing have also published calendars for the years 1994 to 2004 using my watercolour illustrations).

‘The Wastings’, my first novel was published in July 1999 by Hazard Press. Although an international subject it had very limited distribution, only in New Zealand, and the rights have reverted to me. (Colin Dexter read 'The Wastings' and wrote to me: 'I enjoyed and admired "The Wastings"... a beautifully written work... a splendid debut in crime fiction... More please!'.)

Also the texts of photographic books:
‘Colourful New Zealand’
‘New Zealand in Colour’
‘Top of the South’
‘Above Auckland’
‘Hauraki Gulf Destinations’
‘Bay of Plenty’
and a compilation of photographs and quotations titled ‘Anzac Memories’ 2004 all published by New Holland.

My written and illustrated book, ‘Country Churches of New Zealand’ was published in October 2002 by New Holland, who also published ‘Rural New Zealand’ 2004 (photographs and text), and a series of four humorous books of photographs and quotations in 2004 and 2005 titled ‘Woolly Wisdom’, ‘Chewing the Cud’, ‘Fowl Play’, and ‘Pig Tales’. My most recent book was published in August 2006 by New Holland, titled ‘Political Animals’.

Over the years I have written for NZ Herald, Heritage Magazine, Next Magazine and various local and overseas travel and general interest media.