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Nostrums And The Healing Power Of Suggestion

A striking illustration of the power of the mind to bring about the
cure of ailments and symptoms of every sort is found in the history of
the many nostrums and remedies that have worked wonders for a time and
later proved to be inert or even harmful. The ordinary definition of a
nostrum includes the idea of secrecy. At all times in the world's
history fortunes have been made out of such remedies. They appeal not
only to the uneducated, but also to those who are supposed to be well
informed, and this in spite of the fact that generally the remedies
are claimed to do good for nearly every form of disease, and it must
be evident to anyone, after a moment's serious thought, that the one
idea of their inventor is not to benefit patients, but to make money.

With the multiplication of newspapers and magazines, there has been a
great increase in these secret remedies and of their users. Apparently
all that is needed for many people who are ailing, or think they are
ailing, is to be told in a more or less impressive way that some
remedy will cure, and then it proceeds to do them good. There is a
general impression abroad that some of these remedies represent great
discoveries in medicine, and the feeling of most of those who take
them is that the inventor has found a new and wonderful remedy. During
all the centuries such secret remedies have come and gone, and not one
of them has proved to be of lasting value. Just as soon as its
composition is no longer a secret it begins to fail. It is, therefore,
evident that its effect was entirely due to influence on the mind and
not at all to any influence on the body.

The stories of the origin of these remedies bear a striking
similarity. There are two variants on the theme: either the inventor
is supposed to be an earnest student of science, devoting himself to
profound research for many years and finally finding some wonderful
secret of nature hitherto hidden from men; or else the remedy has been
discovered by happy accident, and some chronic sufferer pronounced by
the most eminent physicians to be hopelessly incurable has in despair
turned to the now method, caring little really, so discouraged is he,
whether it does good or ill, and wakes up to find that he is on the
high road to recovery, apparently having been directed by Providence
in the use of the remedy in question. Overflowing with gratitude, he
wants to share the heaven-sent blessing with all mankind--for a
valuable consideration.

The Weapon Ointment.--Among the most famous nostrums, and a striking
example of the great role played in therapeutics by mental influence
and coincidence, is the Unguentum Armariam or Weapon Ointment. This
famous remedy would cure any wound made by a weapon, if it could only
be employed before the fatal effects were absolutely manifest. There
was an abundance of evidence that it stopped the pain, checked the
bleeding and initiated the restoration of the patient to health. We
know the remedy not from traditions of its use among the uneducated,
but from descriptions that we have by men who were among the best
educated of their time, and that by no means an era of dullards. The
story of this infallible remedy is all the more surprising because it
was not applied to the wound itself, nor indeed to the sufferer at
all, but to the weapon which inflicted the wound. Nay, it was well
authenticated that, where the weapon could not be secured for
inunction, if the ointment were applied to a wooden model of the
weapon, the cure followed with almost, though, it was confessed by
some, not quite so much assurance as in the fortunate case of the
weapon being available.

The story has been so well told by Oliver Wendell Holmes in his
"Medical Essays" [Footnote 9] that it seems best to retell it in
abstracts from his "Homeopathy and Its Kindred Delusions." He says:

[Footnote 9: Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston.]

Fabricius Hildanus, whose name is familiar to every surgical
scholar, and Lord Bacon, who frequently dipped a little into
medicine, are my principal authorities for the few circumstances I
shall mention regarding it. The Weapon Ointment was a preparation
used for the healing of wounds, but instead of its being applied to
them, the injured part was washed and bandaged, and the weapon with
which the wound was inflicted was carefully anointed with the
unguent. Empirics, ignorant barbers, and men of that sort are said
to have especially employed it. Still there was not wanting some
among the more respectable members of the medical profession who
supported its claims. [Italics ours.] The composition of this
ointment was complicated, in the different formulas given by
different authorities; but some substances addressed to the
imagination, rather than the wound or weapon, entered into all. Such
were portions of mummy, of human blood and of moss from the skull of
a thief hung in chains.

Hildanus was a wise and learned man, one of the best surgeons of his
time. He was fully aware that a part of the real secret of the
Unguentum Armarium consisted in the washing and bandaging the wound
and then letting it alone. But he could not resist the solemn
assertions respecting its efficacy; he gave way before the outcry of
facts (!), and therefore, instead of denying all their pretensions,
he admitted and tried to account for them upon supernatural grounds.

Holmes says further:

Lord Bacon speaks of the weapon ointment, in his Natural History, as
having in its favor the testimony of men of credit, though, in his
own language, he himself "as yet is not fully inclined to believe
it." His remarks upon the asserted facts respecting it show a
mixture of wise suspicion and partial belief. He does not like the
precise directions given as to the circumstances under which the
animals from which some of the materials were obtained were to be
killed, for he thought it looked like a provision for an excuse in
case of failure, by laying the fault to the omission of some of
these circumstances. But he likes well that "they do not observe the
confecting of the Ointment under any certain constellation; which
is commonly the excuse of magical medicines, when they fail, that
they were not made under a fit figure of heaven." It was
pretended that if the offending weapon should not he had, it would
serve the purpose to anoint a wooden one made like it. "This," says
Lord Bacon, "I should doubt to be a device to keep this strange form
of cure in request and use, because many times you cannot come by
the weapon itself." And in closing his remarks on the statements of
the advocates of the ointment, he says, "Lastly, it will cure a
beast as well as a man, which I like best of all the rest, because
it subjecteth the matter to an easy trial." It is worth remembering
that more than 200 years ago, when an absurd and fantastic remedy
was asserted to possess wonderful power, and when sensible persons
ascribe its pretended influence to imagination, it was boldly
answered that the cure took place when the wounded party did not
know of the application made to the weapon, and even when the brute
animal was the subject of the experiment, and that this assertion,
lie as we all know it was, came in such a shape as to shake the
incredulity of the keenest thinker of his time.

It is interesting to follow up some of the controversies among
scientific men with regard to the weapon ointment, for they serve to
show how the remedy came to maintain its prominence for so long.
Podmore, in his "Mesmerism and Christian Science" (London, 1909),
tells the story of the controversy between Goclenius, a professor of
medicine at the University of Marburg, who published as the Inaugural
Thesis for his professorship, a treatise on the "Weapon Salve," and
Father Roberti, a Jesuit scientist and philosopher, whose final
treatise in the controversy was entitled after the lengthy fashion of
titles in that day, "Goclenius Corrected Out of His Own Mouth; or, The
Downfall of the Magnetic Cure and the Weapon Salve." The decision of
the controversy was eventually referred to the great physician of the
time. Van Helmont, who decided that both disputants were partly wrong,
the Jesuit erring most, but that above all Goclenius should
distinguish between the cases when the weapon had blood on it and when
it had not. When there is blood on the weapon, he held, then the salve
is always effective; when there is not, then much stronger remedies
were required. In both cases, of course, the salve or ointment was
applied to the weapon.

In the midst of this discussion of the points at issue, it is
interesting to note Van Helmont's opinion with regard to many curious
things used in medicine at that time. He insists that Goclenius makes
a mistake in attributing therapeutic power alone to the moss taken
from the skull of a condemned criminal who had been hung in chains.
This material, under the name of usnea, was apparently quite popular
in prescriptions for various chronic ills, and especially those that
we now recognize as prolonged neurotic affections. Van Helmont
emphasizes the fact that the experience of all physicians shows that
material taken from the heads of condemned criminals executed in other
ways, as, for instance, those broken on the wheel, may be just as
effective. Van Helmont conceived of the magnetic and sympathetic
feeling as a natural process. All the force of the stars might be
concentrated in objects that had been beneath their beams for a long
time, and this might be communicated in some wonderful way to patients
so as to supply defects of vitality. Such defects of vitality Van
Helmont's prescriptions actually were compensating, but the source was
in the patients themselves--that reservoir of surplus energy which
remains unused unless some strong suggestion brings it out.

Sympathetic Powder.--After the weapon ointment, the best known of the
nostrums of older times is probably Sir Kenelm Digby's famous
Sympathetic Powder, which Dr. Holmes talks of as even better
known than its great therapeutic predecessor. This, too, was a
wonderworker. Unlike the Unguentum Armarium, however, its composition
was simple. It was nothing else than copper sulphate which had been
allowed to deliquesce to a white powder. This powder would cure any
injury as infallibly as the weapon ointment. It, too, was not applied
to the wound, but to the bloodstained garments (Van Helmont's
distinctions between the bloody and the bright weapon should be
recalled) of the wounded person. The patient did not need to be
present at the time the application was made. He might be far away and
yet its efficacy was, according to many very intelligent and highly
educated persons, quite assured.

For the sympathetic powder we have one of the stories of far-fetched
discovery that have since become so familiar. A missionary, traveling
in the East, was said to have brought the recipe to Europe about the
middle of the seventeenth century. The Grand Duke of Tuscany, in whose
dominions the missionary took up his residence, heard of the cures
performed by him and tried by offers of money and favor to obtain the
missionary's secret, but without success. Sir Kenelm Digby, however,
who was traveling in Italy, happened by good fortune to do a favor for
the missionary, and put him under such deep obligations that he felt
the only way he could properly repay his benefactor was to confide to
him the composition of this wonderful remedy. Sir Kenelm Digby was at
this time one of the best known of English scholars. After having
reached distinction in the English navy, he had devoted himself to
literature, to philosophy, and to politics. He had devoted much time
to the old books of alchemy. Therefore, the offer of this precious
piece of information especially appealed to him. On his return to
England he proceeded to use it for the benefit of his friends, and it
created a sensation. The French dictionary of the Medical Sciences
tells the story of the application of the powder for the first time in
England and of the subsequent use of it, especially on the nobility of

An opportunity soon presented itself to try the powers of the famous
powder. A certain Mr. Howell, having been wounded in endeavoring to
part two of his friends who were fighting a duel, submitted himself
to a trial of the sympathetic powder. Four days after he received
his wounds, Sir Kenelm dipped one of Mr. Howell's garters in a
solution of the powder, and immediately, it is said, the wounds,
which were very painful, grew easy, although the patient, who was
conversing in a corner of the chamber, had not the least idea of
what was doing with his garter. He then returned home leaving his
garter in the hands of Sir Kenelm, who had hung it up to dry, when
Mr. Howell sent his servant in a great hurry to tell him that his
wounds were paining him horribly; the garter was therefore replaced
in the solution of the Powder, and the patient got well after five
or six days of its continued immersion.

King James I, his son, afterwards Charles I, the Duke of Buckingham,
then Prime Minister, and all the principal personages of the time
were cognizant of this fact; and James himself, being curious to
know the secret of this remedy, asked it of Sir Kenelm, who revealed
it to him, and his majesty had the opportunity of making several
trials of its efficacy, which all succeeded in a surprising manner.

Tar Water and Therapeutic Faith.--One further story of an old nostrum
deserves to be told because of the distinction of its chief promoter,
who did not, however, as do most of the nostrum promoters, make a
fortune by it. This is the incident of Bishop Berkeley and his
tar water. Berkeley was one of the leaders of thought of the
eighteenth century. At one time he came to America with the idea of
enlightening the ignorance of the colonists and of founding a school
of philosophy. Besides being one of the most learned men of his time,
he was one of the best. He was known for his gentleness, his
unselfishness, and his lack of pretension. Yet all of these virtues
were unable to save him from falling a victim to a medical delusion.
One of his essays is on the value of tar water in medicine, and is
entitled "Siris, a Chain of Philosophical Reflections and Inquiries
Concerning the Virtues of Tar Water," etc.

Tar water was prepared by stirring a gallon of water with a quart of
tar, letting it stand for several days, and then pouring off the clear
water. It, in fact, retained scarcely more of the tar than the odor.
According to the great philosopher, this not only cured, but prevented
diseases. The list is, indeed, so long that it is hard to understand
how the claims for it could have received any credence. They did,
however, and Berkeley himself, and many of his friends, were cured of
many and various ills, and were protected from many more by its
frequent use. The odor was the factor that proved of suggestive value
and set free the springs of vital energy.

Sarsaparilla.--It might be thought that such deception of self and
others as has been illustrated in the weapon salve and sympathetic
powder would be impossible in our enlightened day. Anyone who thinks
so forgets certain incidents of recent times. The story of
sarsaparilla is a striking illustration. Few drugs have been more
popular in the last half century, and it is even yet popularly
supposed to be a wonderful tonic, a cure for many diseases. During the
first half of the nineteenth century, when the humoral theory of the
causation of diseases was generally accepted, certain German
physicians thought they observed that a decoction of sarsaparilla was
a sovereign remedy for various ailments having their origin in the
blood. The blood was at that time supposed to become impure for many
reasons, and the possibility of neutralizing such impurity by medical
measures was seriously attempted. As Virchow used to insist, the
humoral pathology still holds its ground in popular estimation, and so
blood purifiers are favorite remedies, and will doubtless continue to
be for at least another generation, until cellular pathology secures a
hold on the popular mind.

Sarsaparilla came in, then, as a great blood purifier, and was used
for ten years by many of the physicians of the world, confident that
they were obtaining excellent results from its use. After a time,
however, further study of the drug showed that it was inert. Gradually
the employment of sarsaparilla as a remedial agent ceased, though it
continued to be used as an elegant vehicle in the prescription of
nauseating remedies.

Only after it had been thus abandoned by the regular profession, was
it taken up extensively by others who advertised its virtues widely
and secured a great clientele for it. Probably more money has been
spent on sarsaparilla during the last fifty years than on any other
single drug. Many millions were every year appropriated by rival
concerns to advertise its virtues. It has been possible at any time
during the last half century to secure any number of people who were
willing and ready to declare--and most of them convinced of the truth
of what they said--that various preparations of sarsaparilla had
cured them of long-standing ills, and that they considered it a
life-saving remedy.

The efficient ingredient in the sarsaparilla, so far as any of its
various preparations have seemed to do good, has not been anything
that was in the bottle, but the printer's ink that was absorbed from
the outside of it. People were persuaded that they would get better,
and, as far as most of them were concerned, this was of itself quite
sufficient to turn the scale in favor of improvement that led to the
obliteration of symptoms. So long as these symptoms were a source of
worry and trouble to them, they continued to be quite incurable. Just
as soon as the inhibition of nervous energy, due to worry and
over-attention to their sensations, stopped, then the natural force of
the body was sufficient to remove the sources of complaint.

Psychology, Old and New, of Remedies.--Men have always known how to
take advantage of the possibility of influencing patients' minds by
wondrous claims for remedies. Anyone is sadly deceived who thinks that
it is only in recent times that men have learned to make their
advertisements of nostrums suggestive by the promises made or that we
have developed the psychology of advertising to such a degree as to
appeal to the ailing more forcibly and surely than was done in the
past. Here is the announcement that went with a remedy in old Irish
medicine more than 1,000 years ago. It was, according to its inventor,
"a preservative from death, a restorative for the want of sinews
(strength), for the tongue-tied, a cure for swelling in the head, and
of wounds from iron and of burning by fire, and of the bite of the
hound; it preventeth the lassitude of old age, cures the decline, the
rupture of the blood vessels, takes away the virulence of the
festering sore, the fever of the blood, the poignancy of grief--he to
whom it shall be applied shall be made whole." The announcement ended
up with the panegyric "extolled be the elixir of life bequeathed by
Diancecht to his people; by which everything to which it is applied is
made whole." When it is noted that, besides death and loss of muscle
power and aphasia and wounds and burns and bites, it also cures old
age and consumption (for that is what is meant by decline) and
hemorrhages, and probably aneurysms, and fevers and also grief, there
are not many modern panaceas that exceed it in power.

Always, as in this Irish announcement of the olden time, the climax of
the advertisement is a note of exultant praise for the inventor who
has brought such a magnificent blessing to mankind. The ways of the
nostrum vender are ever the same.

Roman Nostrums.--How old are all these methods, and how little human
nature has changed through all the centuries! The patent medicine men
of Rome in the early Christian eras made use of just the same methods
that are employed to-day. Friedlaender, in his "Roman Life and Manners
Under the Early Roman Empire," tells the story well. Many remedies
were known by special arbitrary names, instead of descriptive names
recalling the ingredients. Sometimes they were named after famous
physicians who had used them, or were said to have done so; again, the
preparations were named after persons of distinction who actually, or
supposedly, were cured thereby, much as, in our own day, cigars are
named after poets, statesmen and pugilists. The titles of some of
these preparations, for instance, were "Ointment for Gout, Made for
Patroculus, Imperial Freedman--Safe Cure"; "Ointment for Aburnius
Valens" (probably the famous jurist) called the "Expensive Ointment";
"Eye Salve with Which Florus Cured Antonia, the Wife of Drusus (the
Emperor's son) After the Other Doctors had Nearly Blinded Her." Many
of these remedies were labeled "instantaneous," "safe," "sure cure,"
"Harmless remedy," and the like. Frequently euphonious names,
sometimes from the Greek, were chosen: Ambrosia, Anicetum, Nectarium,
for the promoters evidently knew the satisfying effect, on both
patient and physician, of a mystifying foreign name.

Proprietary Remedies.--A corresponding abuse very like that of our
own time was with reference to proprietary medicines. Physicians,
instead of compounding their own, accepted those made by others with
the exaggerated claims for them, used them on patients, transferring
their own confidence in them to the patients, thus producing cures
which, after a time, proved to be due entirely to the influence on the
patient's mind. Pliny, the elder, complains that physicians of his
time (the first century after Christ) often bought their remedies so
as to avoid the trouble of preparation. He evidently refers to
compounds supposed to be curative for various affections; for
Friedlaender says that "often the physicians did not know the exact
ingredients of the compounds that they used and should they desire to
make up written prescriptions, would be cheated by the salesmen." Both
Galen and Pliny complain that physicians used ready-made medicines,
instead of original prescriptions carefully prepared by or under the
supervision of the physicians themselves. It is evident that the
proprietary remedy had come into existence thus early, and that
various drug manufacturers made specialties which physicians,
following the line of least resistance, found it easy to prescribe,
though men like Pliny and Galen realized that this was an abdication
of one of the most important functions of their profession, which was
bound to work harm in the end both to themselves and to their

How curious it is to find exactly the same state of affairs recurring
in our time, with absolutely similar results. Simple remedies that are
well known combinations of ordinary drugs receive high-sounding names,
usually derivatives from the Greek or the like, and are claimed to
work just as many wonders as the old-fashioned nostrums. Even
imitations of the old-fashioned poultices, when thus exploited, give a
new lease of life to the exploded idea of the drawing-out power of
external applications.

Common Ailments and Nostrums.--Certain ailments are particularly the
subject of exploitation by the manufacturers of remedies. Rheumatism
is one of these, neuralgia is another, catarrh is a third, and
headache a fourth. Then there are various forms of indigestion and all
the pains and aches associated with it. All of these ailments are
rather vague and are in some cases at least, due to the insistent
dwelling of the patient's mind on some symptom of very little
significance. Others are real pains and aches, relieved by some simple
anodyne drugs, doubly efficient when taken with the suggestion that
they represent a wonderful discovery, which came only after long years
of study and investigation, and are said to represent a new departure
in medicine. Another favorite field for the nostrum vender is the
series of pains and aches associated with the menstrual condition.
Many of these nostrums are used by hundreds of thousands, and yet an
analysis shows that probably the only active substance in them is the
alcohol in which certain of the drug principles are dissolved.
This makes the patient feel better by the exaltation that comes from
the dose of alcohol and the rest is merely suggestion, though there is
no doubt that symptoms which have failed to be cured by physicians are
sometimes relieved by these remedies. It is a cure by faith, not by

Cured Cases as Evidence.--As all of the nostrums, and indeed all the
therapeutic movements supposedly medical or physical or religious,
secure their vogue on the strength of reported cures, this would seem
to be the best possible evidence for the efficacy of a remedy. But
unless the cases supposed to be cured are critically examined and
analyzed, and above all, followed for some time afterwards, such
evidence is open to all sorts of errors. Is it any wonder, then, that
the physician, familiar with the history of medicine in this regard,
asks for the careful study and analysis of these cases. We know that
it was on the strength of cures effected by it, that the weapon
ointment became possible throughout Europe. We know that portions of
the body of executed criminals and the touch of the hanged cured as
many cases as, let us say, osteopathy or Eddyism. The sympathetic
powder and its advocates appealed to the many cures that followed its
use. Every other nostrum from the beginning of time has made this same

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