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KPBS Midday Edition

Radioactive Water As A Cure-All? A Look At Medical 'Quackery' That Didn't Hold Up

An ad selling cocaine drops for tooth pain, from the book "Quackery."
Workman Publishing
An ad selling cocaine drops for tooth pain, from the book "Quackery."
Radioactive Water As A Cure-All? A Look At Medical 'Quackery' That Didn't Hold Up
Radioactive Water As A Cure-All? A Look At Medical 'Quackery' That Didn't Hold Up GUEST: Nate Pedersen, co-author, "Quackery"

This is KPBS Midday Edition , I am Maureen Cavanaugh. There were the other kind of medical mavericks who just had crazy ideas. Many of those crazy ideas have been compiled in the new book by Doctor Livia Kang and Jake Peterson. It is called quackery. I am joined by Nate Peterson. Welcome to the program.Thank you for having me.When we say quackery, that is of medical treatment that you know doesn't work. Your book takes a bigger view?You are right. You're right, the charlatan is the term most people know.Their treatments in the book that people thought were good ideas and we recoiled from them like harbor. We had a Radium spa. People soaked in that and breathe irradiated air. Why did people think that would be healthy?That was an interesting one. Radiation of course is in use today, that is a main treatment that we use today for cancer. When Radium was first discovered as an element, with the early promise of Radium as a cure, there was a lot of missteps because people were not sure how to harness that power toward a positive medicinal effect. They also were not aware of the extremely dangerous levels of radioactive cavity that can occur. For example, when they were looking at water and the curative water of Hot Springs, they thought Radon was why it was a healthy idea to go and so. Radon is a gas that escapes from the spring. They thought of that is the case, what we tried to capture that by radiating drinking water. They thought that would be a healthy drink. For a while, you could buy crocs that would irradiate your drinking water for you. You could even take some of those models with you on the road. You could bring your personal little irradiated spigot to radiate any drinking water.Aside from that, there are so many terrible techniques that you write about, giving opiates to babies to keep them from crying, using rat poison to cure impotence. Is there any one of these that you personally cannot stop thinking about Flacco personally, I run a lot. I am always drawn in hard to the idea of using strychnine as an energy boost in the middle of a race. That was famously used in 1904, in the Olympics. That was before and harming -- in -- performance enhancing drugs were ban. His trainers followed him along to encourage him as he was making progress in the marathon and the way they decided to help him was to give him a strychnine tonic. They gave him that and said don't drink any water, just drink the strychnine. Keep on going. He did. He struggled on. At about mile 20 he was slowing down and they decided it was time for another dose. They gave it to the runner the last few miles of this grueling race. The photo from the finish is epic for how horrible it looks. He is face -- his face is stricken. Of course his body is becoming overloaded with strict nine. You will get muscle spasms. He, as a runner myself, I can imagine how awful that would have been.Yes. Be poisoned on the way to victory.Exactly.This is an illustrated book. You can open to any page and find something interesting. Is there something besides amusement that you hope people take away?Yes. It is easy to sit here in the 21st century and look back and laugh it is an easy laughter look at the crazy cures. If you put yourself in the mindset of that era, you would take part in these practices as well. We are all united by our desire to live longer, healthier lives. You can combine that to profit. It is important to take a step back and laugh and laugh at yourself who knows, we don't know what people will be laughing at us for taking so blindly.Nate Peterson is talking about his book, quackery. Tonight at Six 30 he will be at the adventures by the book program.Thank You so much.My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

There have been mavericks in the history of medicine whose crazy ideas have advanced the treatment of disease. Louis Pasteur, for example, championed the long-ridiculed theory that germs cause disease.

But there were the other kinds of medical mavericks who just had crazy ideas, like giving babies opiates to stop them from crying or eating tapeworms to lose weight. After the discovery of radium, there was even a spa in the Czech Republic where people could soak in radioactive water and breath irradiated air, all in the hopes that this new element could keep people healthy.

Dr. Lydia Kang, a practicing internist, and journalist Nate Pedersen compiled some of the most outlandish treatments in the new book, "Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything."

"Behind every misguided treatment—from Ottomans eating clay to keep the plague away to Victorian gents sitting in a mercury steam room for their syphilis to epilepsy sufferers sipping gladiator blood in ancient Rome—is the incredible power of the human desire to live," they write. "We are willing to ingest cadavers, subject ourselves to boiling oil, and endure experimental treatments involving way too many leeches, all in the name of survival."

Pedersen is speaking in San Diego Tuesday night as part of the Adventures By the Book series. He joined KPBS Midday Edition with more on wonder cures of the past and which have actually stood the test of time.