During his 2012 re-election campaign, former US President Barack Obama described his opponent Mitt Romney’s tax plan as ‘trickle down snake oil’. The term snake oil is synonymous with fraud. But how did this come about?
Snakes have been a part of medicine for over 4000 years since the age of the Sumerians. The Egyptians mixed it with lion, crocodile, tomcat, Ibex and hippopotamus oils as a cure for baldness. Oil derived from Chinese water snakes has been a part of Chinese medicine for thousands of years and was used to cure arthritic aches and pains.
In the 1980s, San Francisco doctor Richard Kunin showed that Chinese snake oil contained 20% eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) which is an omega 3 fatty acid and can be absorbed through the skin. This is believed to have anti-inflammatory properties. In 2007, he Japan National Food Research Institute showed the benefits of Erabu sea snake (found in the Pacific and South China Sea) oil in improving learning and endurance in mice.
Erabu Sea Snake
Omega 3 fatty acids are commonly found in cold blooded creatures living in colder climates as they do not freeze unlike omega 6 fatty acids. This is why they are found in cold water fish like salmon (18% EPA) and also in snakes.
Between 1849 and 1882, about 180,000 Chinese immigrated to the US. Most of them to work as indentured laborers on the Transcontinental Railroad. These people brought their folk remedy of snake oil to treat body aches. The medicine spread among their American counterparts.
As the reputation of Chinese snake oil spread, Americans wondered if this could be produced locally. The 19th century also saw the spread of ‘patent medicine’. These tonics claimed to cure all manner of complaints from chronic pain, headaches, kidney trouble to “female complaints”. Fraudulent doctors traveled from town to town selling universal panaceas and disappearing before disappointed patients could demand refunds.
Stereotyped image of the 19th century fake patent medicine ‘doctor’
At the 1893 World’s Exposition in Chicago, there was a cowboy named Clark Stanley selling oil from American Rattlesnakes. Joe Schwarcz of McGill University describes the scene
“[Stanley] reached into a sack, plucked out a snake, slit it open and plunged it into boiling water. When the fat rose to the top, he skimmed it off and used it on the spot to create ‘Stanley’s Snake Oil,’ a liniment that was immediately snapped up by the throng that had gathered to watch the spectacle.”
Stanley became the Rattlesnake King. The problem was that unlike the oil of the Chinese sea snake which had 20% EPA, rattlesnake oil had only 8.5% EPA and was far less effective.
None of this bothered Stanley because he didn’t really sell snake oil. In 1906 the US government passed the Pure Food and Drug Act. In 1917, he government tested Stanley’s snake oil and found it had
1% fatty oil (presumed to be beef fat)
None of the oil was extracted from snakes. Stanley was fined $20 for misbranding. Soon afterwards, the phrase ‘snake oil salesman’ came to mean charlatan.
Advertisement for Stanley’s Snake Oil