William Radam well deserved the label of “snake oil salesman”. He operated in the United States during the late 19th century, selling his “Microbe Killer” for which he claimed amazing powers.
For a pharmaceutical pioneer, Radam had an unconventional background. He was a gardener who had observed that it didn’t matter what weeds he treated with weedkiller, they all died. He reasoned that, since all diseases were caused by “microbes”, if you could kill the microbes you would cure the disease, whatever it was.
He therefore began to sell his miracle cure with the recommendation to take: “A wineglassful after meals and at bedtime … it will prevent and cure disease by destroying bacteria, the organic life that causes fermentation and decay of the blood, the tissues, and the vital organs”. By claiming to prevent disease as well as cure it, he therefore gained a marketplace among healthy people as well as sick ones.
The diseases that Microbe Killer would prevent and cure were many and various – everything from the common cold and indigestion to syphilis and cancer. It proved to be highly popular, at three dollars a gallon, and Radam eventually set up 17 factories in countries around the world.
Needless to say, Radam was quick to rubbish the medical profession, accusing them of hoodwinking the public by pretending to know what caused a patient’s disease by diagnosing their symptoms. Clearly, applying scientific rigour to the study of medicine was all nonsense – what was needed was a hefty dose of Microbe Killer and nothing else!
Eventually, someone thought it would be a good idea to apply scientific rigour to William’s marvellous medicine. It turned out to be more than 99% water, with small quantities of sulphuric and hydrochloric acids plus a dash of red wine to add taste and colour. At least the former gardener did not think that weedkiller was an appropriate means of dealing with microbes!
Unfortunately, some people today do not seem to be any less gullible than the customers of William Radam. The market for homeopathic remedies seems to be as buoyant as ever, despite the fact that they contain nothing more in terms of clinically effective substances than did Microbe Killer. No doubt there were people in Radam’s day who swore blind that their regular dose of highly dilute and slightly acidic red wine was doing them the power of good, just as devotees of homeopathy claim today. However, apart from the beneficial placebo effect that comes from believing that something is doing you good, the old and new snake oils are no more than that – snake oil!