RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
We're going to hear now about cures involving radioactive elixirs, drilling holes in the head, rat poison. Yikes. What were doctors thinking? These in all manner of medical horrors through the centuries can be found in a new book "Quackery: A Brief History Of The Worst Ways To Cure Everything." It's co-authors are journalist Nate Peterson and internal medicine physician Lydia Kang. She practices in Omaha, Neb. Welcome.
LYDIA KANG: Thanks for having me.
MONTAGNE: There was a point at which radiation was all the rage for everything.
KANG: It was. And it wasn't that long ago. In the early 1900s, Marie Curie had discovered radium. Everybody thought it was the biggest and best thing. So they put it into water, so people would drink radioactive water. It was a treatment called Radithor that was sold all over the place. People could buy their own crocks that were impregnated with radioactive compounds so that when you put water in it, you could drink your own radioactive water at home.
MONTAGNE: What were they trying to cure?
KANG: They thought that it would make them young again and give them youthful vigor. People would take it for aching joints, restoring ill health. I mean, it was all these vague complaints and problems.
MONTAGNE: The cures didn't really take, right?
KANG: Well, no. It didn't help at all because you can't actually use radium to cure hypertension or diabetes or rheumatism. What happens is when you ingest radium like that, unfortunately, one of the places that the body likes to take up that element is in the bones. And so people would get bone cancers, and they would get anemias. And it was pretty deadly.
MONTAGNE: Well, you write, as an example, of this wealthy playboy who was so enthusiastic about it that he took way, way more times the amount of radiated tonic a day that he should of - died a horrible death but also was buried in a...
KANG: ... a lead-lined coffin (laughter)...
MONTAGNE: ...Because his bones were so radioactive.
KANG: Yes. Even Marie Curie's papers that she worked on - because she would carry radium around with her in her pocket - her papers are still kept and lead because they are radioactive as well.
MONTAGNE: There are all kinds of disturbing treatments for troublesome babies - teething babies...
KANG: (Laughter) Oh, gosh.
MONTAGNE: ...Crying babies, including opium.
KANG: Yes. Opium was a main component of a lot of over-the-counter medicines that were specifically geared towards mothers and child caretakers who couldn't handle crying children. Opium was used in these elixirs to put these babies to sleep and, in some cases, killed them.
MONTAGNE: You know, Abraham Lincoln used to suffer terrible headaches. What did he take for that?
KANG: So he was taking mercury. In particular, it was something called blue mass, which was elemental mercury like that silvery, metal liquid that people used to play with when their thermometers broke. They would pound it and combine it with these good-tasting herbs. We don't know 100 percent for sure if they are completely responsible for moodiness in him. But a lot of the information from the time tells us that he would have these mood spells. And he was taking blue mass at the time, so one does wonder if the mercury did something bad to his mental health.
MONTAGNE: Is there a story that you found particularly fascinating in writing this book, "Quackery?"
KANG: Well, I have to say that the information on cannibalism and corpse medicine was probably one of my favorites because it's so particularly horrific. People would drink the blood of gladiators. Egyptian tombs were being pillaged for mummies so that they could grind them up into these cures. They were mixed with myrrh and spices and sold in England. And there was even an import tax at the time because there were so many mummies being imported.
MONTAGNE: And of course though, many of these really gruesome cures didn't work at all. But some of them can be used today to really do something, to really help medically.
KANG: Yes. Maybe not mercury, for instance, but arsenic which we think of as the poison that kings would use to kill each other - arsenic today is used as a current treatment for promyelocytic leukemia. And I think a lot of people would be pretty shocked to hear that. Opium, we know, has a long history and still exists today for good and for bad. A lot of these other things like leeches can be used by some surgeons to help - in post-surgical patients to, you know, reduce swelling so that the surgerized tissues survive. So it is shocking to find that a lot of these things still are alive and well in our pharmacopoeias and in our hospitals.
MONTAGNE: But a little more delicately used.
KANG: Better packaged, better studied, better understood.
MONTAGNE: Dr. Lydia Kang is co-author with Nate Peterson of "Quackery: A Brief History Of The Worst Ways To Cure Everything." Thank you very much for joining us.
KANG: Thank you so much for having me.
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