It wasn’t the snake’s fault…
From Collectors Weekly:
These days, “snake oil” is synonymous with quackery, the phoniest of phony medicines. A “snake oil salesman” promises you the world, takes your money, and is long gone by the time you realize the product in your hands is completely worthless. But… the original snake oil actually worked.
In the 1860s, Chinese laborers immigrated to the United States to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. At night, they would rub their sore, tired muscles with ointment made from Chinese water snake (Enhydris chinensis), an ancient Chinese remedy they shared with their American co-workers.
A 2007 story in Scientific American explains that California neurophysiology researcher Richard Kunin made the connection between Chinese water snakes and omega-3 fatty acids in the 1980s.
“Kunin visited San Francisco’s Chinatown to buy such snake oil and analyze it. According to his 1989 analysis published in the Western Journal of Medicine, Chinese water-snake oil contains 20 percent eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), one of the two types of omega-3 fatty acids most readily used by our bodies. Salmon, one of the most popular food sources of omega-3s, contains a maximum of 18 percent EPA, lower than that of snake oil.”
However, it wasn’t until several years after Kunin’s research that American scientists discovered that omega-3s are vital for human metabolism. Not only do they sooth inflammation in muscles and joints, but also, they can help “cognitive function and reduce blood pressure, cholesterol, and even depression.”
So why does snake oil have such a bad rap?
Well, hucksters that sold patent or proprietary medicine caught wind of the miraculous muscle-soothing powers of snake oil. Naturally, they decided to sell their own versions of snake oil—but it was just much easier to forgo using actual snakes…
As we give credit where credit is due, we might recall that it was on this date in 1721 that John Copson of Philadelphia became the first insurance agent in the Americas, and took out the first advertisement for insurance (in the American Weekly Mercury); he opened the first insurance office several days later. While there’s no record of how Copson fared, his initiative was sufficiently precedential that four years later the first book printed by Benjamin Franklin contained a long passage extolling the virtues of indemnification.
Happy Towel Day!