Human Folly & the Paradox of Human Intelligence

Sovereign Remedies

The original al-axiir (elixir) was a strange siliceous substance found in the joints of bamboo, and was, so we are led to believe, 'much esteemed and sought after by the Arabians and Persians'. It set the tone for its myriads of successors in that it was rare, extremely expensive, and medically speaking, completely ineffectual. Those who, down the centuries, have supplied such restoratives have at best been as deluded as their clients and at worst (and more typically), cynical con men. But if anything springs eternal from the human breast it is the hope that there exists a remedial measure for their aches and pains/ potency/prospects of immortality (or all of these), despite every indication that all previous attempts in this regard have signally failed.

Buying such remedies was ever a tricky business. Quite apart from the danger of being parted from large sums of money for a worthless product there was always the risk that the elixir itself might be positively harmful. Lethal side effects are another long-time feature of panaceas. One of the principle aims of ancient Chinese alchemists was to discover a Pill of Immortality, a nostrum that could prolong human life indefinitely. Unfortunately, for reasons to do with their own mystical system, they fastened on Cinnabar as one of the principle ingredients of this magical substance. Now although this compound has a very attractive red colouring (and is therefore auspicious in Chinese terms) its main constituent is the highly poisonous mercuric sulphide. It is suspected that several Chinese Emperors died of slow poisoning as a result of the extended use of this most unlikely life preserver.

Did they not realize at some stage that this potion was doing them no good at all? Probably not; it is unlikely that the gradual ill effects of this substance, or of any other that is firmly believed to be beneficial, would have been taken as a contra-indication. It is a basic precept of psychology that once people are committed to a belief (of any kind) they have a tendency to reject evidence that conflicts with it, however obvious this might appear to any detached observer. In any event, the deaths of a string of Emperors did not seem to deter hosts of others from trying to achieve immortality.

The western tradition of Alchemy, which ultimately derived from the Chinese, inherited their objective of attaining an immortalising elixir (Elixir vitae), and although the Western alchemists had as little success with this as with their attempts to transmute base metals to gold, they were never daunted, persisting in their quest for centuries. Failure tended to fuel rather than quell their enthusiasm, or rather obsession - as with compulsive gamblers the big score was always just around the corner. And, of course, the field was always open to the exploits of frauds and impostors.

By the mid-17th century, and after what can only honestly be described as centuries of failure, the Alchemical enterprise began to give way to Chemistry in the modern sense, and the existence of any substance that could turn lead into gold began to appear increasingly unlikely. The possibility of anyone discovering an immortalising Elixir vitae was equally viewed with a high degree of scepticism, but the notion managed to survive in the rather less ambitious form of a search for a universal remedy for disease, a Panacea. The late 17th and 18th centuries was the great age of panaceas, although of course the appealing idea of a cure-all, or at the very least of a rejuvenating tonic, has proven to be an extremely a persistent one.

A fixation on the supposed medicinal properties of this or that substance would appear to be among the most consistent of humankinds stock of fantasies. Even great minds can fall prey to this delusion. The philosopher Bishop Berkeley is one of the more famous examples. Having established an international reputation with his philosophy of Immaterialism, Berkely went on to develop an idée fixe concerning the therapeutic properties of Tar-water (of all things), and spent much of the rest of his life making all manner of ingenious connections between this unlikely substance and his own philosophical speculations, producing what has been described as the most curious book in the entire literature of metaphysics, to the great confusion of his admirers.

There is a venerable tradition of very clever men who have held very silly ideas. Sigmund Freud was for some years a firm believer in the curative properties of cocaine, and indulged in this 'psychic energizer' quite freely, until its deleterious (not to say addictive) effects forced themselves on his attention. Freud had been introduced to the use of cocaine by the eccentric Dr. Fliess whose weird theories, including an abstruse system of numerology, together with his enthusiastic advocacy of cocaine, make him appear now every bit mad as the most disturbed of Freud's patients. Freud himself became thoroughly addicted to the drug and only broke with it with some difficulty (although this enthusiasm tends to be expunged from orthodox biographies of the founder of Psychoanalysis).

Cocaine, which had only recently been isolated from the coca plant, had a great vogue in late 19th century. There were many proponents of its supposed therapeutic qualities both in the U.S.A. and Europe (Drug Gurus are by no means a recent phenomenon). Dr. William A Hammond, who at the time was one of America's leading neurologists, was an ardent advocate of the drug, and more or less devoted his career to it. He was forever lecturing on its efficacy, assuring his audiences that cocaine was no more habit-forming than tea or coffee. Endorsements of this kind, from Hammond and other enthusiasts from the medical profession, ensured a rapid increase in the consumption of cocaine among all classes of American society; moreover, the immediate effects seemed to justify their claims. Cocaine is a powerful stimulant of the central nervous system, it made the users feel euphoric and confidant. What could be wrong with that?

Reputable U.S. pharmaceutical companies soon jumped on the bandwagon and created a whole range of new products that used cocaine as the principle ingredient. It became available in a whole variety of forms that could be smoked, sniffed or injected (by the 1890’s there were several little 'injection kits' on the market). Naturally all of these products emphasized the therapeutic aspects of the drug. Dr. Hammond himself developed what he called a 'cocaine wine', a tonic that contained two grams of cocaine per bottle, which, he proudly proclaimed, was far more effective than a French version that only offered half a grain per bottle. In 1886 a temperance version of this tonic appeared, offering the advantages of the cocaine without the dangerous temptations of alcohol. Years later the makers of this brew, which was called Coca-cola, were compelled to remove their most important ingredient, but it went on, nevertheless, to become a reasonably successful 'soft' drink.

The official reaction against cocaine was surprisingly slow off the mark. But the disastrous effects of longer term use gradually, and inevitably, made themselves apparent. The drug came to be increasingly linked with public manifestations of paranoid and violent behaviour. In the first decade of this century, after a number of sensational cases involving cocaine users, concern mounted about its, by now fairly widespread, abuse. It was not until 1914, however, that the use of cocaine as an ingredient of patent remedies was restricted - by which time a considerable black market had formed. The well-meaning enthusiasts that had promoted cocaine as a harmless stimulant and 'psychic energizer' had, in effect, laid the foundations of the present massive trade in illicit narcotics.

But, elixir-wise, there was worse to come. By pure coincidence it happened that, just at the time when the 'therapeutic' effects of cocaine were becoming thoroughly discredited, a new magical cure-all appeared on the scene - and it was one that was to prove even more destructive to the health and well being of its users. It was, indeed, even more lethal than the cinnabar of the Chinese Taoist alchemists. This new rejuvenator was, incredibly, the radioactive element radium.

At this time, around 1915, the potential dangers of radioactive materials were not generally appreciated. Only a handful of physicists had any real understanding of the principles involved, but there was a widespread interest in the whole phenomena, particularly in the notion that these newly discovered elements could give off energy-rays. The subject inspired a great deal of ill-informed speculation, among which was the suggestion that radioactivity might account for the healing qualities of hot springs. In Europe in particular there was still a tradition of 'taking of waters' for medicinal purposes. This new phenomenon offered a rational explanation for the efficacy of Spa treatment; it also seemed to strike a resonance with Homeopathy. This last theory held that certain products that were potentially poisonous in large quantities might be beneficial, perhaps even essential, in trace amounts. In the relatively unregulated trading conditions of the time these vague notions were rapidly turned into hard products. There soon appeared a variety of 'radioactive' candles, liniments, potions and creams, many containing small amounts of radium and some with none at all. (We can safely say that this was one of those rare cases where purchasers would have been far better off with a counterfeit than the real thing).

At first the U.S. lagged behind Europe in this fashion. The vogue for the so-called 'catalytic' properties of radium only began in earnest after the Nobel-laureate Madame Curie had undertaken an extensive lecture tour across the States in 1921. Her tour attracted a great deal of interest and inspired a veritable flood of patent medicines that included (or claimed to include) radioactive materials in their list of ingredients. A certain 'Doctor' William J.A.Bailey was soon to make the running as the leading figure in this field. He was a character whose past exploits had led him to serve at least one term of imprisonment for fraud. Bailey was essentially cast in the mould of the Snake Oil peddlers of the previous century and, like them, loaded his sales pitch with a mass of pseudo-scientific flim-flam. His sales techniques were highly successful though, and his American Endocrine Laboratory was soon turning out a whole range of products 'containing Radium and Thorium for all glandular metabolism and faulty chemistry conditions'. Among these was a sort of harness, containing radium, that could be worn around the neck, around the waist or, unbelievably, under the scrotum - allowing it to pass its health-giving rays to the required area. But his most profitable line was a patent medicine that he named Radithor.

Unfortunately for its consumers Radithor really did contain the radium that Bailey claimed. In fact its sole constituents were radium and distilled water: but it was an immediate success. As sales increased Bailey's claims for the product became ever more extravagant - 'We have cornered aberration, disease, old age and death itself ...'. According to its proprietor Radithor would cure all diseases including impotency and imbecility. He worked out a generous percentage system with physicians that was essentially a bribe to encourage them to prescribe his product. This and other energetic promotions and dubious sales techniques made the product very successful. In the years 1925-30 he sold more than 400,000 bottles of the elixir, making himself very wealthy in the process. Radithor was not cheap, but overall his customers were well satisfied. Many felt that the rejuvenator was doing them no end of good, and Bailey had sheaves of testimonials to that effect. Had this been any ordinary quack remedy, with useless but innocuous ingredients, Bailey may have become even more wealthy, but radium was not by any means an ordinary substance - it posed dangers of an entirely novel kind.

There had been a few early warnings of the hazards presented by the careless use of radioactive materials. Reports had come to the attention of the authorities of strange illnesses and deaths among the few chemists and industrial workers that had handled Radium, but these attracted little notice. A few specialists aired their concern, but when the New York Times called on Dr.Bailey to comment, as an expert in the field, he assured the public that 'There is no proof that radium was responsible for these deaths'. Fortunately, the F.D.A. (Food and Drugs Agency) was beginning to think differently. Reports of those suffering from the dire symptoms of what is now known as radiation sickness were starting to accumulate. Matters came to a head with the gruesome death of a well-known athlete and wealthy socialite E.M.Byers in March 1932.

Byers had been a great enthusiast for Radithor. He had been introduced to the patent medicine by his doctor in 1927, and had immediately felt its beneficial effects, telling his friends that he felt invigorated and rejuvenated since taking the tonic. He was soon drinking several bottles a day, and took to sending cases of the stuff to friends and acquaintances. He even tried it on some of his racehorses. It was later calculated that between 1927 and 1931 he consumed somewhere in the region of 1500 bottles of Radithor. He clearly persisted with this remedy with the same sort of dogged determination that the Chinese Emperors felt for their Pill of Immortality.

It was not until some time in 1930 that Byers began to complain to his Doctor of unusual aches and pains. He confided that he had lost the 'toned-up' feeling that Radithor had once given him, and that he was prone to headaches and toothache. His Doctor could find nothing seriously wrong with him, and diagnosed his condition as simple sinusitis. Soon after this, however, Byers teeth started to drop out, and his health began to deteriorate at an alarming rate. Very soon his constitution was in an utterly dire state. Effectively the radium that he had absorbed over the previous five years was causing his entire body to slowly decompose. He underwent a series of drastic operations that removed most of his lower jaw and parts of his skull, but before long his marrow and kidneys had failed. When he died, after some months of intense suffering, he weighed just 22 pounds, and a post-mortem revealed that his entire bone tissue was ravaged.

When it came to light the case created a sensation. The deaths of other Radithor drinkers were revealed, and the authorities responded by clamping down on all patent medicines containing radioactive ingredients. These somewhat belated measures, together with the bad publicity generated by the Byers case, caused something of a collapse in the Radithor market. Dr.Bailey however, in true entreponeurial spirit, nimbly moved on to other radioactive scams. He brought out the Bioray, a radioactive paperweight, advertised as a 'miniature Sun', the Adrenoray, which was a radioactive belt clip, and the Thoronator, a refillable radioactive 'health spring for every home or office'. But these products did not do well; in fact his time was up. The public had by now become justifiably apprehensive of all things radioactive. Bailey was pursued by health officials and hounded by the press for a while, but eventually faded from public view, closing one of the saddest chapters in the dubious history of panaceas.