Every age had its panacea, from the year 800 to the Roaring Twenties. Purported cure-alls spoke to the anxieties and preoccupations of the cultural moment. Join us on a whirlwind tour through history’s most bizarre, intriguing, and deadly miracle cures.
Chinese alchemists of the T’ang dynasty were obsessed with the elixir of life, believed to cure all disease and confer immortality. Ironically, four emperors died after taking a dose – probably due to lethal ingredients like cinnabar and mercury. This netsuke carving shows the Moon Rabbit, a figure from folklore, mixing the elixir.
European alchemists likewise believed alchemy held the secret of eternal life. Just as the philosopher’s stone would ‘heal’ base metals, transforming them into gold, its medical counterpart would heal a body by balancing its humours. In 1348, the Black Death’s arrival made the quest for this panacea particularly urgent.
To combat plague, others turned to theriac. Famous since the days of Marcus Aurelius, theriac was a compound of up to 80 ingredients: fermented viper flesh, ground coral, saffron, opium, and more, mashed into sticky syrup. Theriac lives on today – it’s the origin of treacle.
The aristocrat’s plague protection of choice was the bezoar, a concretion formed in a goat’s stomach. Paranoid monarchs kept them nearby in case of poisoning. The less wealthy rented them, as bezoars often cost several times their weight in gold. In fact, when conquistadors discovered them inside llamas, they became a justification for the continued colonisation of the Americas.
Indeed, Europeans viewed all their colonies as ‘medicine chests’. When the Portuguese colonised the Maldives in the 1600s, the exorbitantly priced coco de mer came into vogue. Part of their allure was their mysterious origin: nobody, not even the Maldivians, had seen them growing. The nuts simply washed up on beaches, purportedly from an underwater tree guarded by dragons.
Unable to afford a costly cure? In the 1600s, the answer was the antimonial cup. It was a money-saver, indefinitely reusable – and also, unfortunately, poisonous. Wine, standing in the cup, became toxic. Proponents believed the subsequent vomiting purged disease. Also popular: antimonial ‘perpetual pills’, which passed through the body undigested and therefore could be reused and handed down through generations.
In contrast to the unassuming but deadly antimonial cup, the 1700s’ defining panacea was a masterpiece of style without substance. The charismatic Franz Mesmer turned his treatments into proto-seances, with incense and eerie glass armonica music wafting through the air. His gentle gestures ‘cured’ his patients by manipulating their ‘animal magnetism’.
Spectacle was still selling in the mid-1800s, when the medicine-show charlatans hawked their miracle drugs at travelling fairs, between vaudeville acts and burlesque shows. Pre-dating food and drug regulations, these patent medicines might be anything from high-proof alcohol to coloured water. Still, they promised to cure virtually everything, from acute ailments to general malaise.
Patent medicines were touted as safeguards against the strain of modern life. “We are a great army of nervous invalids,” proclaimed Dr John Pemberton, diagnosing the entire United States with a nervous affliction. His prescription? Cocaine-infused wine, to “stimulate our lethargy and console our grief.” Thus, Coca Cola was born.
Our most recent panacea was also the deadliest. Discovered in 1898, radium was heralded as the ‘modern philosopher’s stone’ and perhaps even the wellspring of life itself. Soon radium was everywhere: lotions, candies, toothpaste. Socialite Eben Byers downed several bottles of Radithor daily, until his bones disintegrated. His death ended the radium boom, but his teeth still, literally, glow.