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Culture » Culture Features

The History of Snake Oil

What a long and strange trip alternative medicine has taken

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In a land of rampant obesity and poor health, instant access to Dr. Google, and the awkward adolescence of Obamacare, charlatans abound. Late night infomercials promise to melt pounds away with newly patented technology. Or, think about the juicing demonstration in a big box store; exotic fruits and vegetables immediately rendered into an appetizing and healthful tonic, or email spam folders filled with notices for mineral mud baths, probiotics, cryogenic chamber therapy, coffee bean extracts, auric cleansing—each guaranteed to improve and even save your very life!

In Marketplace of the Marvelous: The Strange Origins of Modern Medicine, Erika Janik explores the historical roots of such seemingly "quackery," and how some become groundbreaking innovation. It is a fascinating history of modern alternative medicine, and reveals how early crackpot remedies such as drinking plenty of water, getting adequate exercise, a healthful diet and herbal remedies have slowly (and sometimes painfully) become integrated into mainstream medicine.

In this exhaustive survey of alternative medicine and its kooky history, Janik describes the nineteenth century's medical divide between regulars and irregulars: the gentlemen professionals who relied on remedies they dubbed "heroic," but most often involved bloodletting, blistering and purging; and the quacks, unconventional practitioners who pioneered many of the most successful alternative treatments still used today, as well as a few hilarious failures. Peeking into such shadowy corners of medical history as Thompsonian botany, phrenology, water therapy and hypnotism, Janik lends her voice to the men and women who sought the power to heal themselves in a world of head-spinning change.

Raised in Washington, Janik is a historian, not surprisingly with a book out about the history of apples, and surprisingly, another about Wisconsin, where she currently lives and produces an NPR show, "Wisconsin Lives." Marketplace of the Marvelous is well served by Janik's training as a historian. The observations of the misfit margins that she explores are both keen and cutting—she is as evenhanded as she is graceful when describing the turbulent first half of the nineteenth century, and draws clear connections between modern medical theory and its early influences. And, in spite of her careful research and copious footnoting, the author's wry sense of humor and insight transforms what could be a dense piece of arcane history into a startlingly relevant examination of how medicine advances through shifting cultural landscapes. Though there will always be boundaries between different modes of treatment—be they regular or irregular, traditional or alternative—Janik deftly points out that medicine itself is a moving target, "not a rigid structure but a culture in continual redefinition and negotiation."

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