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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

Credit: Workman Publishing

Above: 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


Nate Pedersen, co-author, "Quackery"


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.


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