Monday, February 19, 2007

Good fer what ails ye

On my first visit to a Malaysian pharmacy, one of the first items that caught my eye was a shelf filled with giant bottles of cod liver oil, fresh from a factory in England. Below that was “gripe water” intended to keep my baby free from “wind”. The boxes and bottles on the nearby shelves were a bizarre mix of Victorian advertisement, Chinese characters, and primitive, clumsy company logos like sailboats, axes and old men. By the time I’d gotten to “Three Rifles Brand Wound Paint”, which featured what looked like a developmentally challenged child’s shaky drawing of a tiny nurse applying something with a paintbrush to a bodiless arm ten times her size, I was hooked.

Now, I personally think Eastern medicine is fascinating from a historical and cultural perspective, like astrology, but, like astrology, I am inclined to think it’s bunk wrapped up in flim-flam and slathered with hokum and hogwash. Let me rephrase that: I do not doubt the apparent efficacy of either alternative medicine or astrology in many situations, but I have what I like to think is a healthily skeptical view of the processes behind that efficacy. I would say the average Eastern medicinal concoction might hover somewhere around 75% placebo effect and 25% effective remedy.

However, I am not writing in order to poke fun at Eastern medicine, but to note that I’m in the Lost World of Western Medicine. A strange and fantastic pharmaceutical otherworld cut off from modern evolutionary developments, where mighty 1800s snake-oil cures still roam proud and free, untouched by the mass extinctions which cruelly cut down their non-Malaysian brethren. There are products here, like the cod liver oil, that no westerners aside from Abe Simpson have used in generations.

Let me put it another way. My grandmother, for example, used to constantly talk about the limitless health benefits of mustard plasters and witch hazel. What the hell are those things? They both sounded bizarre, medieval and excruciatingly painful, and I’m pretty sure that they were. Well, I’m guessing Grandma could easily have walked into a Malaysian pharmacy and found everything she’d need for her home-brewed polio vaccine or Irishman-bite remedy or Coalminer’s Elbow poultice or whatever you need a mustard plaster for.

It’s tough to say who’s behind this time-warp. There are a few European companies that seem to sell olde-fashioned products here, such as the cod liver oil people, but most of the pseudo-Western remedies seem to be made by Malaysian, Singaporean or Chinese factories, possibly ones which were set up BY Europeans, before the Great War, to harness Asia’s teeming millions to produce the latest high-tech products. Now, these factories, presumably cut off from their ties to colonial oppressors, have for generations soldiered on in isolation, like that Japanese soldier alone on that island, turning out for the domestic market strange, vestigial pharmaceutical products which Europe has long ago left behind. It would be like today’s America suddenly switching to a new type of footwear, dooming Chinese kids near the factories to wear Nike and Adidas for the next 200 years.

Anyhoo, I have tracked down and captured one of these specimens in the wild. Long thought extinct, the rugged “Sloan’s Liniment” is a living relic, an evolutionary dead-end which bears witness to an entire world of bizarre interactions of Western and Eastern quack medicine.

The label on the front shows what seems to be a crude Daguerreotype of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, with a reproduced signature I interpret as “DrSamlSSloan” underneath in a strangely feminine cursive hand.

On the side of the bottle are:

“FOR EXTERNAL USE for the relief of muscular Rheumatism, Lumbago, Stiff Neck, Neuralgia, Sciatica, Sprains, Bruises, Chilblains and Muscular Cramp.

DIRECTIONS: Apply the liniment liberally with a soft flannel cloth or a piece of cotton wool. Do not rub. Sloan’s Liniment is strong enough without rubbing, which might harm a tender skin. Do not bandage.

Oil of Turpentine 40% w/v
Also Contains:
Oleoresin Capsicum
Oil of Pine
Methyl Salicylate
Oil of Sassafrass

So basically, it’s turpentine with a little pepper, pine oil and mint. Yeah, that’s going to help my sprains and bruises. And as for the uses and directions, I don’t really have anything to add to their comedy perfection. It’s like Grandpa Simpson poetry. Lumbago? Chilblains? Oil of Sassafrass? “Do not rub”? I don’t have the time right now, but maybe in a future post I will apply and rub the dickens out of the sh*t, in the name of science.

Dr. Sloane, if you ever really existed, my hat’s off to you, Sir, not only for your fine turpentine liniment but also for your excellent work on Also Sprach Zarathustra.


I thought I was exaggerating too wildly and poking a little too much fun at the remedies in the above post, so I did a little research into Sloan’s Liniment. Well, turns out everything I wrote up there was pretty much right on the money, except that his signature doesn’t say “Sam’l”, it says “Earl”.

According to one very interesting source, Sloan’s Liniment was part of the snake oil fad of the late 1800s. The article says that while they didn’t make the claim that it was made from snakes, Sloan's was part of a long list of products that had the same ingredients (turpentine, a dash of pepper) as the celebrated snake oil. The only active ingredient (and I use the term loosely) seems to be the pepper, which makes the skin feel hot. I guess that explains why rubbing it in is verboten.

I didn’t know there actually was snake oil, I just thought it was a disparaging term for quack tonics. Other competitors, according to the very informative article, included Dr. Thomas’ Eclectric Oil, Dr. Pierce’s Golden Medical Discovery and the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company’s Swamp Root Kidney and Liver Medicine.

Now, what are the chances that one of those absurdly fraudulent Wild West medicine products would still be being manufactured some 120 years later, on the other side of the world, with the exact same frigging label? The whole thing is too wacky.

Now, Americans and Europeans all have, to some extent, a stereotype that Asians are wise and filled with ancient lore when it comes to healing. So let’s think about this for a moment. People in Asia clearly still use Sloan’s Liniment by the gallon, since it and a dozen similar products are available in every shop. What does that say about the discerning nature of their ancient medicinal wisdom?

If the average Asian pharmacy-goer is clueless enough to shell out for some 1890s mustachioed carnival huckster’s sideshow paint thinner (with a dash of tabasco) and dab it on their chilblains, why on Earth would they be the go-to continent for info on what roots and herbs to mix with ground rhino penis and make into a tea to cure cancer? Why would I let anyone who keeps the Sloan’s flying off the shelves tell me what parts of my feet they should stick needles into to clear up my kidney stones? I’m sorry, Eastern medicine, you’ve been punked. By Dr. Earl S. Sloan, M.D. Oh no, wait, that’s right, he wasn’t a doctor. He was a veterinary school dropout and horse trader.


flowriverflow said...

It seems to me a great pity that the only thing you are capable of is taking the piss out of a liniment that you have not used or researched. You have merely cheapened your blog with witless comments. Sloan's will be alive and well, curing all sorts of ailments long after you,my friend, have ceased to be.

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