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