Philobiblon: Medical skulduggery

Friday, February 18, 2005

Medical skulduggery

Was reading that there's nothing new about nefarious practices among drug "companies".

In the early 16th-century a "wonder drug", guaiacum, from the Americas, was discovered, and thought to cure syphillis. (The theory was the disease had come from there, which it hadn't, so the cure must also.)

Ulrich von Hutton wrote a whole treatise on its virtues in 1519, dedicating it to the Archbishop with Mainz with the telling words: "I hope that Your Eminence has escaped the pox but should you catch it (Heaven forbid but you can never tell) I would be glad to treat and heal you."

In 1530 the physician Girolamo Francastoro created the name still use today in a poem on extolling guaiacum's powers, and the merchant house of Fugger, which had the import monopoly, had an extensive "PR" campaign for the chain of hospitals, the only places where it could be obtained.

Paracelsus, who doesn't come off to well in other scientific respects, at least saw through this, denouncing the drug as a scam and recommending the mercury treatment that would continue for centuries. (For my previous posting on this see here - but be warned it is not for the squeamish.)

But, "the Fuggers responded by using their financial muscle to suppress Paracelsus's publications and ridicule his scientific credibility. The ethically dubious world of patent medicines was born," says Jerry Brotton, in The Renaissance Bazaar, pp. 192-3, from which this story is taken.

And not just patent, I'd say.

For Paracelsus see an excellent detailed account at the (US) National Library of Medicine or the short version on Wikipedia. And guaiacum, although the resin not the 16th-century choice of wood, is used by herbalists today.

Footnote: Trying to decide whether to use one or two Ls in the title, I learnt that the term skulduggery is thought to be from Scots sculduddery - "obscenity, fornication". Language is a funny thing.

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