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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