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Quacks Pretend To Cure Other Men’s Disorders But Rarely Find A Cure For Their Own – Part Fifty Three


Hunt’s Remedy – William E Clarke

Whatever happened to dropsy? It first made its appearance in literature in Horace’s Odes (Carmina 2.2 13 – 16) and was used by the poet as a metaphor for avarice. 18th and 19th century literature is peppered by references to people suffering from dropsy but it seems to have gone out of fashion. Perhaps that’s because it is now known as oedema and is a condition whereby excess fluid accumulates below the surface of the skin, particularly in the legs and ankles, causing inflammation. An obstruction in the blood vessel seems to cause it and it can be treated by locating and treating the obstacle.

Anyone suffering from dropsy would be glad of some form of respite and a popular remedy in the second half of the 19th century was Hunt’s Remedy. It was not just restricted to the cure of dropsy. According to the accompanying adverts it was the “great Kidney Medicine that cures dropsy and all diseases of the kidney, bladder and urinary organs – never known to fail”. When the medicine came into the hands of a chemist from Providence, Rhode Island, William E Clarke, it was promoted using some really wonderful trade cards showing a healthy male using a bottle of the said potion to wrestle a skeleton accompanied by a scythe. There was no doubting the message of this powerful image.

The adverts went on to say that “by the use of Hunt’s Remedy the Stomach and Bowels will speedily regain their strength and the blood will be perfectly purified”. In case you were concerned what was in it, the advert went on to reassure you that it “is purely vegetable and meets a want never before furnished to the public and the utmost reliance may be placed on it”. The potion came in two sizes – a small embossed bottle, known as Trial Size, retailing for 75 cents and a larger one which would set you back $1.25. The bottles were aqua in colour. One of Clarke’s agents, a Mr W B Blanding, sold 33,120 bottles over the course of two years and it was extremely popular throughout New England. But that was not the limit of its sales penetration. “The Remedy is known throughout the United States and Canada and in foreign countries”.

The story went that the key ingredient of the potion was a root which grew in the pastures and roadsides of the United States and was used by the Dutch colonists for medicinal purposes. The recipe was passed to a number of physicians, one of whom used it to cure a Mr Hunt of Manhattan who, suffering from dropsy, took it for a year and saw that “his bloated flesh was reduced and his vigour restored”. Rather like Victor Kiam, he was so enamoured with the drug that he bought up the manufacturing rights and upon his death these were acquired by William Clarke in 1872.

The Remedy was widely available until the turn of the 20th century when the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act put an end to its rather extravagant claims. Whether it was effective was unclear. Its main ingredient, according to the Medical Record of 19th July 1884, was apocynum cannabium or dogbane which was used by Native American tribes to treat a wide variety of complaints such as rheumatism, coughs, pox, whooping cough, asthma and internal parasites. Whether it touched the kidneys or dropsy is unclear. However, the quality of the advertising images meant it has a special place in the annals of quackery.

Pumpkin Update (7)

Undaunted by last year’s disaster, I have decided to have another go at growing pumpkins. So full of anticipation and not a little trepidation, I have planted eight pumpkin seeds into pots containing well-watered and manured soil and put them into a propagator.

For this year’s horticultural experiment, I have chosen a variety of pumpkin called Snowman.It is a white coloured variety, surprise, surprise, with yellow orangish flesh and can grow to the size of a football. We will see! Naturally, I will keep you advised of progress.

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Sixty Eight


John Joseph Merlin (1735 – 1803)

One of the underlying themes of this series is the role that luck plays in success – being in the right place at the right time or, in the case of inductees into our illustrious Hall of Fame, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Perhaps a shining example of this is the Belgian-born inventor, John Joseph Merlin. Born in Huy, he studied at the Academie des Sciences in Paris where he became well-known for his inventiveness and was persuaded to move to London in 1760.

In London Merlin used his knowledge of automata and the mechanics of clocks to develop a range of innovative toys and musical instruments which he patented. In 1783 he opened in Hanover Square a Mechanical Museum where he displayed many of the toys and objects that he had developed. It was a great success, Madame d’Arblay noting that “Merlin was quite the rage in London where everything was a la Merlin – Merlin chairs” – he had developed a mechanical gouty chair – “Merlin pianos, Merlin swings…Merlin fiddles and Merlin mechanical pegs for violins and violoncellos”.

Merlin was lionised by the great and the good. He was a particular friend of Thomas Gainsborough, who painted a rather splendid portrait, possibly in return for one of Merlin’s mechanical instruments. He was a regular visitor at the house of the musicologist, Charles Burney. His daughter, Fanny, wrote that Merlin was “very diverting in conversation…he speaks his opinion upon all subjects and about all persons with the most undisguised freedom”. But showing a little Englander attitude even then, she noted “He does not, though a foreigner, want words but he arranges and pronounces them very comically”.

Another theme that runs through this series is man’s frustrations with the limitations that bipedalism imposes on the ability to get from A to B as quickly as possible. We have seen early attempts to create bicycles, air flight, submarines and the like. Merlin applied his ingenuity to the problem of how to accelerate man’s ability to travel and his light bulb moment was to hit upon the ice skate from which he removed the blade and replaced it with a couple of wheels. Attaching them to the feet he had made, and naturally, patented the first pair of roller skates.

Merlin was a showman and could not resist the opportunity to demonstrate his roller skates at one of the premier events of the 1771 London season, a soiree at the home of Mrs Cowley’s at Carlisle House. For maximum effect, Merlin decided to make his entrance on his roller skates while playing the violin – and why not? What happened next is to be found in Thomas Busby’s Concert Room and Orchestra Anecdotes of 1805. “when not having provided the means of retarding his velocity, or commanding its direction” – two major design faults, I feel –“he impelled himself against a mirror of more than five hundred pounds value, dashed it to atoms, broke his instrument to pieces and wounded himself most severely”.

Merlin’s dramatic entrance set back the development of the roller skate by nearly 90 years. In 1863 James Plimpton, an American, came up with the idea of a rocking skate with four wheels for stability and independent axles. So successful was Plimpton’s device that roller skating took off. Plimpton’s design is still today.

For inventing the roller skate but putting back its development by nearly a century because of your eccentric demonstration, John Julius Merlin, you are a worthy inductee.


If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link

Quacks Pretend To Cure Other Men’s Disorders But Rarely Find A Cure For Their Own – Part Fifty Two


Mother’s Friend

Having endured another series of Call The Midwife – the plot line is that a woman gets pregnant, there are complications, there’s a lot of screaming, pushing and breathing and a sprog pops out – I realise why women might want to find ways to make the process of pregnancy and labour as comfortable as possible. So common is pregnancy – indeed, the survival of the human race depends upon it – that it offers an enormous opportunity for the unscrupulous proponents of quackery to exploit.

One company who seized the opportunity was the Bradfield Regulator Company, based in Atlanta, Georgia, who peddled a liniment called Mother’s Friend for around 30 years in the States and Canada from the 1880s. Selling at $1 a bottle, its virtues and properties were lauded in the advertisements placed in the press. One, dating from 1899, advised that it was for “expectant mothers to use externally. It softens the muscles and causes them to expand without discomfort. If used during most of the period of pregnancy, there will be no morning sickness, no rising breasts, no headache. When baby is born there will be little pain, no danger and labour would be short and easy”. No wonder there were plenty of people willing to give it a go.

Some of the adverts were almost lyrical in their proclamation of the liniment’s amazing powers. “To young mothers we offer not the stupor caused by chloroform with risk of death to you or your dearly loved and longed for baby but an agent which will if used as directed invariably alleviate in the most magical way the pains, horrors and risks of labour and often entirely do away with them…” Others had a rather troubling eugenic twist to them. In an advert dating from around 1901 a Kentucky attorney-at-law is quoted as saying, “before the birth of my last one, my wife used four bottles of Mother’s Friend. If you had the pictures of our children, you could see at a glance that the last one is healthiest, prettiest and finest-looking of them all”.

An advert from 1902 went to great pains to satisfy the reader that there wasn’t the faintest trace of opium, morphine and strychnine which many rival birth medicines contained. That’s a relief, then, but it begs the question what was in the liniment and was it effective?

For many a quack, the Food and Drugs Act (1906) began to make life a little difficult. With its extravagant claims, the Bradfield Regulator Company soon came under official scrutiny. On two occasions in 1909 consignments of Mother’s Friend were seized and subjected to scientific analysis. The good news was that as the advert had stated, there wasn’t a trace of a noxious drug amongst the ingredients. The bad news was that there wasn’t really much to the much-vaunted liniment. The investigators found that it consisted of some oil, probably vegetable, and some soap. It was unlikely to cause harm but would barely alleviate the traumas of childbirth.

Mother’s Friend continued to be sold but it went through what we would term today as a bit of rebranding and market repositioning. It was marketed as a massage oil designed to help with dry skin and the aches and pains of pregnancy. When the brand was acquired by the S.S.S Company it became a body lotion and is still available today. As the website says, “keep all your skin smooth and supple before, during and after pregnancy with the creams that moms have used for generations”.

The power of a placebo is a wondrous thing.

A Measure Of Things – Part Two


The Apgar scale

The arrival of a little one is a source of immense pride and joy to the parents and, of course, the doting grandparents, the world over. After the initial joy of the sprog popping out the immediate question – these days the identity of its sex is generally known prepartum – is whether it is OK. Ignoramus that I am, it came as a bit of a surprise to me that there is a method for evaluating the newborn child which for the experienced midwife takes a matter of seconds to use.

The Apgar scale, for that is what it is called, was the brain child of Virginia Apgar, an anaesthetist who developed it as a quick way of assessing the effect of obstetric anaesthesia on babies. She published her paper in the ever-popular Current Researches in Anaesthesia and Analgesia that year and it has been adopted since then. Without knowing it, I probably had a score when I popped out of my mother’s womb, although quite what it was I don’t know.

The scale used five criteria for assessing the sprog normally within the first five minutes of its birth-  skin colour, pulse rate, reflex grimace and irritability, activity and respiratory effort – and awarded a score between 0 and 2 in each category. The child, therefore, could have a maximum score of 10 and a minimum of 0 but most would be somewhere in between.

A child would score 0 in skin colour if it was blue all over, a 1 if there was blueness at the extremities and a 2 if the body and extremities exhibited a normal complexion. The absence of a pulse rate would score a 0 while a rate in excess of 100 beats per minute would attract a 2, a 1 being reserved for a rate in between. If there was no reaction from the baby when it was prodded, it would be marked down with a zero whereas a cry on stimulation would earn it a score of 2. A silent grimace would score a one. If the child showed no obvious signs of movement it would score a zero, some flexion of the limbs would attract a one and flexed arms and legs which resisted extension would score top marks. Finally, a baby with a strong, robust cry would attract a two but one with weak, irregular breathing would score a one and when where breathing seemed absent would attract a zero.

Now I’m no expert but a consistent score of zero across each of the categories doesn’t sound good. Indeed, a score of 3 or below is regarded as critically low and tests would be repeated to check on progress. On the other hand, scores of 7 or over are considered normal and those in the middle are fairly low. The objective behind the scale is not to be predictive of long-term health but to get a sense of how quickly it needs attention. Hats off to Virginia.

If you consider the criteria used carefully and apply synonyms – skin colour = Appearance, pulse rate = Pulse, reflex etc = Grimace, Activity and respiratory effort = Respiration – you will note that you have Virginia’s surname. I often wonder if there really is something in nominative determinism, where some people’s futures are predicted for them by their surnames. After all, we have a Lord Justice Judge, I know of a Canon Parsons and Lou Gehrig was thought to have suffered from Gehrig’s disease, although it later transpired that he didn’t. Be that as it may, what we have here is an example of a backronym, the retro-fitting of a mnemonic to an existing word or acronym.

If you are anticipating a happy event, why not ask for the Apgar score. It will guarantee you extra kudos in the delivery room.

Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Twenty Eight


Can you fry an egg on a pavement?

It is so hot outside, you could fry an egg on the pavement”. A curious phrase indeed and one I have always taken as being figurative rather than one grounded in fact. Leaving aside considerations of hygiene – after all, you can never be quite sure what has been on the pavement before – to the enquiring mind, the obvious question is whether it is really possible.

The starting point in our investigation is the humble egg. In order to cook, the proteins in an egg need to have their molecular structure modified by a process known as denature and then coagulate. For the process to start and be maintained to ensure the egg is perfectly cooked, temperatures need to be around 144 and 158 degrees Fahrenheit. This would seem to rule out conducting the experiment in Blighty as temperatures rarely rise above 100 degrees and even then it is so rare that you could be waiting a long time to even attempt the experiment.

The next ingredient in the experiment is the pavement and its particular characteristics. Here I am indebted to some research conducted by Robert Wolke in his book, What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained. Wolke found that temperatures of pavements can vary depending upon the composition of the pavement, whether it is in direct sunlight or not and on the ambient air temperature. Dark pavements consisting of tar or similar materials absorb more light than concrete ones and so would be the pavement of choice. But, disappointingly, Wolke found that pavements rarely reached a temperature above 145 degrees, frustratingly just short of the minimum temperature needed to cook an egg.

The next problem is that when you crack an egg and pour its contents on to your pavement of choice, the egg will cool it slightly and as the pavement is a poor conductor of heat you will be lucky, without an additional source of heat, to get the temperature back up to a point where the egg will be cooked evenly. The reason we fry an egg in a frying pan is that metal is a good conductor of heat and gets hotter, allowing the optimal temperature to be more easily achieved. If you really wanted to fry an egg al fresco using the natural power of the sun, then you would be better off using the bonnet of a car. As they say, make sure you have the owner’s consent before you try as the mess it leaves may cause offence.

Arizona is a state where temperatures are regularly high and humidity is low. The conditions are such that on 4th July each year – a day when we Brits celebrate the departure of the American colonies from the benevolent British Empire – the good citizens of Oatman hold an annual Solar Egg Frying Contest. As it says on the tin, the contestants have 15 minutes to fry an egg by harnessing the power of the sun. However, to illustrate and confirm Wolke’s findings, they are allowed to use artificial aids such as mirrors, magnifying glasses and reflectors to aid the process. The lack of humidity also helps because liquids evaporate more quickly and so the eggs dry out faster.

So, I suppose, the answer to our question is yes but only with some additional assistance.

Quacks Pretend To Cure Other Men’s Disorders But Rarely Find A Cure For Their Own – Part Fifty One


Dr Pierce’s Favourite Prescription

One of America’s greatest practitioners of the ignoble art of quackery was one Ray Vaughn Pierce (1840 – 1914) who operated from Buffalo in New York state. So prolific was he and so varied were his panaceas and devices that he may well keep me gainfully occupied for some time. But we have to start somewhere and where better, perhaps, than a cure targeted at the weaker sex. Indeed, the advertising for the so-called Favourite Prescription specifically referred to “weak women”.

Pierce was not bashful in proclaiming the benefits of the Favourite. Describing it as “a tonic nervine” which “quiets nervous irritation” and “strengthens the enfeebled nervous system, restoring it to healthful vigour”. It was particularly helpful with women’s problems; “in all diseases involving the female reproductive organs, with which there is usually associated an irritable condition of the nervous system, it is unsurpassed as a remedy”. There was more – it was a “uterine and general tonic of great excellence” – naturally – and “an efficient remedy in cases requiring medicine to regulate the menstrual function”. If that was not enough, Pierce topped it off with a further boast, “in all cases of debility, the Favourite Prescription tranquillises the nerves, tones up the organs, and increases their vigour, and strengthens the system”.


As well as exhibiting the quack’s natural tendency towards bombast, Pierce was also coy as to what was in this magic potion. The nearest he got was to suggest that it was “derived exclusively from the vegetable kingdom”. So that’s all right then. Perhaps more alarming was an advert in 1902 which was targeted at mothers whose daughters were about to enter puberty. Naturally, Dr Pierce’s Favourite Prescription could deal with everything that could beset a teenage girl but what was troubling was the final sentence, “there is no alcohol in Favourite Prescription and it is entirely free from opium”. Why did he feel it necessary to make this point?

It may well because of a bit of a run in Pierce had with the Ladies Home Journal. The organ had the audacity to subject the potion to chemical analysis. They claimed that it contained savin, cinchona, agaric, cinnamon, water, acacia, sugar, digitalis, opium, oil star anise and alcohol. Pierce, by now a member of the House of Representatives, vigorously denied the claim and sued the Journal for $200,000, a case he won when a further analysis revealed the absence of opium and alcohol. It is thought, though, that the crafty quack had simply omitted the offending ingredients between the initial article and the court case. It may be that the presence of opium and alcohol contributed to the potion’s phenomenal success.

Pierce had form in using narcotics. His Golden Medical Discovery which was advertised to give ”men an appetite like a cowboy’s and the digestion of an ostrich” – the mind boggles – contained quinine, opium and alcohol. Even if these ingredients weren’t ever present, and a descendent who has Pierce’s recipe book claims they were, there was a couple of troubling herbal ingredients. Acacia was known to dampen sexual appetite and response while savin was known since Roman times to induce menstruation. Dosed up with this, the daughter of the house would, unknowingly, be well protected against any advances from the lads of the neighbourhood.

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Sixty Seven


Dave Smith (? to present)

Ah, the nineteen eighties. Whether you loved them or hated them, the music of the time was dominated by synthesisers and electronica and one of the developments that made this possible was the creation of the MIDI or Musical Instrument Digital Interface in 1983. It quickly became the universal standard and you would have thought that its inventor would have found the key to a fortune. But you would be wrong as the story of Dave Smith, the latest inductee to our illustrious Hall of Fame, reveals.

The problem with electronic instruments pre-MIDI was that they couldn’t talk to each other. OK, a clever keyboard player could play two instruments at the same time, one with their left and the other with their right but that was pretty much as far as it went. A graduate in Computer Science and Electronic Engineering from UC Berkley, Smith was fascinated by synthesisers, creating Sequential Circuits in 1974 and in 1977 developed the Prophet 5, one of the first analogue polyphonic synthesisers. Sequential Circuits went on to become one of the most successful synthesiser manufacturers ever.

But Smith wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to develop a protocol whereby electronic instruments and synthesisers could communicate, allowing the musician to control a range of instruments from one synthesiser or computer. In 1981 he issued a challenge to the industry to back a universal protocol. To set the ball rolling, he created a rough draft of what it might look like, calling it the Universal Synthesiser Interface. Few came forward to insist but one who did was Ikutaro Kakehashi, the founder of Roland. The two collaborated during 1982, communicating – it seems astonishing to write this these days – by fax and by the time of the National Association of Music Merchants in 1983, Smith was ready to reveal what they had come up with.

By today’s standards the specification for MIDI was pretty rudimentary, consisting of eight sheets of paper and limiting itself to a range of basic set of instructions you might want to send between two synthesisers, like what notes to play and at what volume. But it worked – Smith was able to link up his Prophet 600 synthesiser with a Roland JP-6. A musical revolution had arrived.

MIDI’s development coincided with the development of the PC whose processors were now fast enough using MIDI to sequence notes, control the number of keyboards and drum machines operating at the same time. It also allowed aspiring musicians to operate at home rather than spending time in expensive recording studios. But it didn’t stop there. MIDI technology has been on Mac OS since 1995 and is used in your smartphone, powering the first wave of ring tones. Games like Guitar hero use it. And it has stood the test of time. The basic protocol has been added to but remains the same.

And why did Smith not make a fortune? Well, he gave it away. Explaining what may seem on the face of it a baffling decision, he said, “we wanted to be sure we had 100% participation, so we decided not to charge any other companies that wanted to use it”. Very magnanimous. On the other hand, it may have been a sprat to catch a mackerel, making products such as synthesisers more valuable and desirable. But even then, Smith had to sell Sequential Circuits to Yamaha in 1988 to stave off bankruptcy.

He is still making and selling synths with his own company, Dave Smith Instruments. But for eschewing the money that would have come his way through licensing MIDI, Dave Smith is a worthy inductee.


If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link

Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Twenty Seven


Do humans have the same range of facial expressions?

A picture is worth a thousand words, they say. Every picture tells a story. The human face can be wonderfully expressive and can give the onlooker a sense of what you are thinking or feeling without the need for you to utter a word. To the enquiring mind the obvious question is whether there is a stock range of expressions for emotions or, putting it another way, do humans make the same facial expressions in response to the same emotions.

An interesting question, you might agree, and one which a graduate scientist at the University of Minnesota, one Carney Landis, applied his mind to in 1924. The starting point was to assemble a group of volunteers, most of whom came from Landis’ fellow graduate students. His idea was to submit the group to a range of situations which would evoke different emotions, ranging from joy to fear, and examine the facial expressions that each made. To make life easier for himself, he decided to divide the human face into a series of sections following the musculature and paint lines around each section. By taking a series of photographs he would be able to determine how each volunteer responded and which part of the face moved in response to any given stimulus.

Having developed the methodology, the experiment began. The key, obviously, was to assemble a range of stimuli that would provoke a strong reaction. So, rather like a bush tucker trial, the guinea pigs were asked to put their hands in a bucket of slimy frogs. Whilst this was going on, Landis was happily snapping away. They were asked to look at pornographic images, were subjected to electric shocks, smell ammonia. You get the picture.

All went swimmingly until Landis produced a live white rat on a tray and asked them to decapitate it. Even allowing for the fact that sensibilities around animal rights were not as advanced as they might now be, this bizarre request caused a bit of a stir amongst the volunteers. What was interesting, and perhaps the most significant outcome of the bizarre experiment although the import seemed to have passed Landis by, was that only a third of the volunteers actually refused to carry out his command. Had he pondered this phenomenon, he would have pre-empted Stanley Milgram’s equally disturbing experiments of 1963 into the extent that people would obey orders even if meant causing others harm. The students’ noble refusal to obey Landis didn’t spare the rats. Landis did the job for them.

The other two thirds, with some reluctance, set about butchering the rats. The trouble was that the executioner’s art is a rather skilled one, calling for a steady hand and steely determination, and most made a bit of a fist of it. According to Landis’ notes, “the effort and attempt to hurry usually resulted in a rather awkward and prolonged job of decapitation”. It is hard to imagine the scene of devastation as the rats suffered a slow and painful death. Perhaps Landis should have concentrated on looking at the expressions on the rodent’s faces.

And the result of this rather bizarre experiment? Try as he could, Landis could not see any correlation between an emotion and expression. It seems that people have a wide range of facial expressions to convey the same emotion. Still, it is good that we have cleared that one up.

Gastropod Of The Week


I hesitate to return to the subject of snails but this story which I stumbled on this week is astonishing in so many ways.

A woman in Tel Aviv was out walking when she heard a rather loud crunching sound. Looking down she realised that she had trodden on a snail and crushed its shell. In such circumstances most people would either just walk on or have another go to make sure that the creature had been put out of its agony. But not she.

Instead she scooped the creature and rushed to the nearest vets, the Haclinica veterinary hospital. Even more astonishingly, the staff agreed to repair the creature using epoxy glue and making sure that the adhesive stayed on the outer shell.

The snail, now named Chevy, is on the road to recovery – slowly, of course.