Old Time Medical Fads

by on October 1st, 2013
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Obamacare takes a big step forward today, with insurance exchanges now going live.

Speaking of American medicine, here’s a few of the many medical fads Americans have fallen for over the years, none of which will likely be covered by Obamacare.


In 1834, Ohio physician Dr. John Cook Bennett declared that tomatoes could cure pretty much everything. Diarrhea, cholera, jaundice, indigestion, headaches, nausea, dyspepsia, you name it.

This led to a tomato craze. Dr. Bennett suggested to traveling merchant Archibald Miles, who was selling a medicine called the “American Hygiene Pill,” that he rename it “Extract of Tomato Pill” to boost sales. Miles launched “Dr. Miles’ Compound Extract of Tomato” and made a small fortune. Throughout the 1830s, tomato pills, tomato extract, and a novel new product known as “tomato ketchup,” were sold across the country. The competition was so fierce that this was known as the Tomato Pill War.

In 1840, investigations into tomato pills by the medical profession led to their unmasking as a false medicine. But the tomato pill craze led to the adoption of the tomato as an American food staple.


Minister Sylvester Graham was a temperance and anti-masturbation activist and dietary reformer in early 19th century America. He developed a diet (known as the Graham diet) that in its unprocessed blandness would prevent people from having impure thoughts. One of the key staples was the graham cracker, made, naturally, with graham flour. Although years later sugar and honey was added to the graham cracker, which Graham would have hated, maybe he had a point: try having an impure thought while eating one.

John Harvey Kellogg also actively campaigned against masturbation, and discouraged sexual activity in general. He believed that bland foods would dull the passions, and his invention of the corn flake cereal that bears his name was in this service. Kellogg argued with his brother (who co-invented the cereal) about addition of sugar to the otherwise bland cereal. Whether or not corn flakes – with or without sugar – has ever discouraged sexual activity among its eaters is unknown.


Electricity was a popular cure-all from the mid-19th to early 20th centuries. The practice of electropathy – administering electrical shocks to patients – was a widespread treatment for muscle problems and hysteria, among other ailments. Unlike other purported cures, a patient could feel electricity coursing through his or her body so it was convincing to some people. Who cares if the treatment occasionally left burns and had no basis in medicine?


In the 18th century, physician Franz Mesmer experimented with magnets to cure all sorts of medical problems, from nervous ailments to blindness. Magnetism became quite popular in 19th century America, and was used to, among other things, relieve pain, increase blood flow, heal broken bones, and cure cancer. Suffice it to say it never worked. That’s not to say that it wasn’t heavily marketed. At one point you could even buy electric corsets. The use of magnets to cure a variety of aches and pains persists to this day, without any medical evidence to indicate that magnets do anything to the body.

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  • Luciana

    I found it, I found it! There is, indeed, intelligent and interesting content on internet. We just need to excavate and panning a little more and sometimes dribble Google bots to find the jewels. Well done guys! Just became a fan.

  • Check out “The Medical Electricians” — a book on Victorian electro-quackery in the U.S. and England. Lots of ads and interesting stories.

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