Back to the future for alternative remedies

Back to the future for alternative remedies

Occasionally you just need a little light relief when exploring health, and things putting in perspective; this article does both. It also uses the yo-yoing around diet and protein to good effect, which I have tried to do in recent posts.

But what it does convey is that our present medical system is just that; the present way of looking at things. It may neither be the best in historical terms, nor the final word. In fact, our argument is that it is definitively not the final word and that we are present going through a significant flux, as science loses its once powerful grip, and alternative viewpoints are surfacing.

In an indirect kind of way this article is doing more than trying to put things into perspective, it is also connecting us back to tradition, albeit indirectly and with more than a touch of humour. The holistic perspective does both; it encompasses alternative and complementary trends, includes the psyche or mind, and sees health in a continuum from the past that embraces the wisdom of the past.

Sometimes we may be moving forwards, but we are not necessarily evolving or progressing… 

Source: The Australian

A WEEK is a long time in politics, and it’s getting that way in medical science. Last week, a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet made you slim. This week, according to the latest research from Sydney’s Anzac Institute, it kills you young.

Medical research moves so fast these days that the tide can be coming in and going out at the same time. Victoria’s La Trobe University is hunting funds to establish a centre to study complementary medicines, just as the federal Health Department reviews whether natural therapies work well enough to justify insurance rebates.

One wonders what the reviewers would make of Australian medical science circa 1851, when pretty well everything was alternative. A “healthy” dose of mercury or arsenic was a good way of warding off general illness, according to the booklet Hints on Health from the Victorians, on sale at Sovereign Hill historical park in Ballarat.

Other tips: hold the feet of a dead chicken against your body to cure malaria. An upset tummy? A pinch of gunpowder in a glass of warm soapy water. Whooping cough? A spider in a chunk of butter. Earache? A ready-cooked potato, secured tightly. No potato? A baked onion is just as effective.

Jan Croggon, senior historian at Sovereign Hill, doubts the booklet’s authenticity. But she has no doubts about Mrs Beeton’s ubiquitous 1859 tome The Book of Household Management, which offers numerous cures for toothache.

One involves sixpence-sized pieces of zinc and silver. “Put them together and hold the defective tooth between them or contiguous to them,” Mrs Beeton counsels. “The zinc and silver, acting as a galvanic battery, will produce on the nerve of the tooth sufficient electricity to establish a current and relieve the pain.”

Other suggestions are to apply a few drops of creosote or smoke a pipe of tobacco and caraway seeds. And to cure stuttering, read aloud with the teeth closed for two hours a day. Four months should do it.

Today’s Health Department sceptics would take particular interest in Holloway’s Pills, advertised as curing 35 diseases. Modern analysis, Croggon says, found them to contain aloe, myrrh and saffron.

“(They) wouldn’t have been very harmful but probably wouldn’t have cured everything from asthma to headache, scrofula, rheumatism, worms, dysentery – you name it.”

In the same vein, Wistar’s Balsam of Wild Cherry claimed to cure coughs, colds, asthma, croup, bronchitis, influenza, bleeding of the lungs, liver infections and early-stage consumption.

Croggon says it would be wrong to characterise the remedies as “completely nutty”. The world was on the cusp of discovering how germs worked. “They didn’t understand and they did what they could,” she says.

“Some things were based on good sense – naturopathic-type remedies which we use in some ways today.”

Cocaine and opium were found in toothache drops and other remedies “which tended to at least keep people quiet if they didn’t cure them”. But while anaesthesia was emerging, it wasn’t available for the last stage of pregnancy. “Childbirth was a pain that women had to suffer,” Croggon says. “It’s like the recession we had to have.”

But before the Health Department reviewers write off natural therapies as misapplied consumers of taxpayers’ dollars, they should consider a “particularly successful” ointment made from sour cream left to stand until it went mouldy. The manufacturers heated it until the mould settled at the bottom, scooped the top off and put it in jars.

“Today we would guess they didn’t get all the mould off, and the mould had penicillin in it,” Croggon says.

Some 90 years later, penicillin earned Nobel prizes for its Oxford discoverers.