Beacon Salon Series: Lydia Kang

Lydia Kang, MD, gives a talk entitled “A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything” based on her book, Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything.

About Lydia Kang

Lydia Kang, MD, is a practicing internal medicine physician and author of young adult fiction and adult fiction. Her YA novels include Control, Catalyst, and The November Girl. Her adult fiction debut is titled A Beautiful Poison. Her nonfiction has been published in JAMA, the Annals of Internal Medicine, and the Journal of General Internal Medicine. She lives and practices in Omaha, Nebraska.

Her book, Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything, is a fascinating guide to the most astonishing, weirdest, and sometimes outright dangerous medical practices throughout human history, a compelling, morbidly humorous look at medicine’s dark side.

Written by Dr. Kang, and Nate Pedersen, a librarian and historian, Quackery offers 67 tales of outlandish treatments complete with vintage illustrations and photographs of everything from the equipment needed for Tobacco Smoke Enemas (used to “save” drowning victims in the River Thames) to an ad for the morphine-laced Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup for children. Seamlessly combining macabre humor with science and storytelling, each chapter reveals the odd and often disturbing side of the ever-evolving field of medicine. Other stories of medical misfires include:

  • Eben Byers, a wealthy industrialist who, on the advice of his doctors, consumed fifteen hundred bottles of radioactive Radithor over the course of five years. Needless to say, he died.
  • A 1679 recipe for Blood Jam—a cure for fevers and infections—with specific instructions to get the blood from a person with “a blotchy, red complexion.” Watch out redheads!
  • Skull moss, a fluffy greenish moss that grew on a skull cap exposed to the outdoors, thought to stop a nosebleed when sniffed up the nose. Guess a simple tissue didn’t do the trick!
  • Doctor John Brinkley’s infamous and rather awful goat testicle implants, touted as a cure for impotence.
  • Strychnine—yes, the ingredient used in the medieval era as rat poison—sold as a Victorian version of Adderall and later as a 1960s version of Viagra called Jems.
  • The origin of the vibrator, invented as a solution to doctors’ wrist aches from performing “pelvic massages” on women suffering from hysteria. They were a hit, allowing women to treat their “hysteria” in the privacy of their own homes, away from handsy doctors. A medical miracle indeed.

Leeches, bloodletting, snake oil, icepick lobotomies, radium spa hotels, cocaine toothache drops, tobacco toothpaste, arsenic cosmetics, mercury-laden teething powders—it’s all here, proving that when it comes to medicine, humans will believe literally anything in our quest for perfect health.

Register online.

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