Healthy Skepticism: The Great American Medicine Show

When talking about misleading health claims it makes sense to begin with The Great American Medicine show, which, for me at least, calls to mind images of 19th century traveling snake-oil salesmen and old-timey vaudeville numbers.

Snake oil posterThe Medicine show is not uniquely American. It actually is thought to have its origins in the decline of the Roman Empire. In the year 568, the Church banned theaters and circuses throughout all of Europe. Performers then hit the road throughout Italy and formed traveling entertainment troupes. At some point tooth extraction became part of the traveling show and this was the dawn of the medicine show and the birth of the ciarlatano—“one who sells salves or other drugs in public places, pulls teeth, and exhibits tricks of legerdemain.” This, of course, evolved into the word charlatan. The Italian medicine shows had a counterpart in England. English nostrum peddlers were often referred to as stage quacks because the nonsense they spouted from the stage sounded like the quacking of a duck. The nostrum peddlers and the ciarlatanos were the ancestors to the American stage quacks.

In the 1800s and early 1900s, medicine shows were often the only entertainment members of the audience had. Sandwiched between soft-shoe dance numbers and vaudeville-type routines were testimonials performed by the entertainers for manufactured patent or proprietary medicines. The advent of wood pulp paper meant that newspapers could print more issues and had room for bigger advertisements, which changed the nature of marketing profoundly. Patent medicine makers now had a way to reach more people and make their nostrums household names: they ran the first saturation campaigns and were hugely successful.

This success led to the decline of the performing charlatan but not to quackery itself. Print ads broadened the scope of large scale nostrum peddler immensely but that was nothing compared to television. In the mid-twentieth century, television gave the quack an almost unlimited reach across the U.S. and gave the old performing charlatan a new faculty as a pitchman.

In 1950, Dudley J. LeBlanc, a Louisiana state senator and manufacturer of a product called Hadacol, was at the height of his career and had become one of the first documented celebrity pitchmen who was a pitchman before he was a celebrity. Directly after serving in World War I, LeBlanc started his career as a traveling salesman, selling tobacco, shoes, and two of his own patent medicines: Dixie Dew Cough Syrup and Happy Day Headache Powder.  He served on the Public Service Commission and eventually went on to serve in both houses of the Louisiana legislature.  After an unsuccessful campaign for governor in 1932, LeBlanc sold his insurance business and, following the loss of all the proceeds in the stock market returned to the patent medicine business. Finally, in the early forties LeBlanc was afflicted with an ailment that caused his legs and big toe to swell, thus rendering him crippled.

James Harvey Young writes about LeBlanc in The Medical Messiahs (1967):

LeBlanc, during the heyday of his fame, was fond of telling inquiring reporters how it had all begun. In 1943, he said, he got a bad pain in his right big toe. The pain spread to his knees, his arms, his neck. Three different doctors gave him three different diagnoses—gout, arthritis, beri beri. Each treated him without success. While in a New York hospital, he overheard his wife say: “He really is sick. I never saw Dudley so bad. I just don’t know if I’ll ever see him alive again. LeBlanc sought to escape from the hospital. As he hobbled out he met an old friend, another doctor, who told him he looked like “walking death.” Hearing LeBlanc’s symptoms, the doctor offered to cure them. So LeBlanc went with him to his office for an injection. Like magic the medication began to cure his condition. Each shot brought further improvement. LeBlanc was naturally curious. So he asked: “Doc, Whazzat stuff you got in dat l’il ole bottle?”

“Dude, you crazy?” the doctor answered. “You think I give away my secrets to a man in the patent medicine business?”

Several days later the doctor was busy and told his nurse to give LeBlanc his shot.

“She wasn’t so smart as him,” LeBlanc later reminisced. “Nor careful either. She left the bottle on the table. When she finished I gave her that old Southern Chivalry, you know, ‘after you, Gertrude.’ As soon as she turned her back I shoved the bottle in my pocket.”

Taking the bottle to his hotel, LeBlanc read the label, then got some books to find out what the label meant. His injections, he found were mostly B vitamins. “Then I figured to myself,” LeBlanc said, “This is it.”

It is thought that LeBlanc had Beri Beri, which is a neurological disease that is caused by a lack of vitamin B1 and thiamin in the diet. This explains why Hadacol was effective in treating him, as its main ingredients aside from alcohol were B vitamins. Either way, LeBlanc was eventually able to raise Hadacol to the level of cultural phenomenon. A 1951 statement on Hadacol in Newsweek said: “It’s a craze. It’s a culture. It’s a political movement. This all seems very odd when you consider that Hadacol was a tonic that consisted of alcohol, some B vitamins, calcium, iron, phosphorous, dilute hydrochloric acid, and honey.

ImageMuch of LeBlanc’s success could be attributed to his charismatic appeal, “he was a healer of the people, the champion of the working stiff”.  That appeal eventually allowed him to resurrect the medicine show and make it huge for a time. During the late 1940s a caravan of 130 vehicles went on a 3,800-mile tour through the South and played one-night stands in 18 cities.  10,000 fans (for lack of a better word) brought Hadacol box tops as admission to watch the shows—which were emceed by LeBlanc—and were musically entertained with swingin’ tunes like the Hadacol Boogie, and Who put the Pep in Grandma? (Sadly there is no available link to this one, which is possibly my favorite song title ever!) Not to mention the list of celebrities like Mickey Rooney, Minnie Pearl, George Burns, and Gracie Allen, among the other A-Listers of the day who were on the tour. LeBlanc spent a half a million dollars on the extravaganza and the public gladly spent over three million dollars of their hard-earned money on Hadacol with the reassurance that LeBlanc would “send back their money” if it failed to help.

This is all pretty amazing when you consider that Hadacol was marketed as medicine (somebody needs to write The Lipitor® Boogie). One reason for Hadacol’s prolonged popularity may have been the 12 percent alcohol that it contained. Alcohol was a staple ingredient in patent medicine tonics from the beginning, which explains why people often felt better after taking them (Cheers!). However, LeBlanc asserted repeatedly that the alcohol was used merely as a preservative and that if one followed the directions on the bottle he or she should feel nothing in the way of a buzz (I’m paraphrasing here). Nonetheless, Hadacol was about as alcoholic as wine.

The other, probably more significant, reason for Hadacol’s success comes from the fact that LeBlanc, from the beginning, knew the value of the testimonial, people believed vivid stories from other “everyday folk” over scientific evidence, and testimonials were (and still are) an effective way to get around government restrictions on false claims. If a person who used a tonic claims that it cured his or her cancer, the manufacturer can use the testimonial without actually making the claim. LeBlanc received a good many of his testimonials by way of free samples sent to people along with a form that they were requested to fill out on how Hadacol helped them. The label on the Hadacol bottle only made vague claims about it being useful for “nervousness, indigestion, insomnia, and other minor ills. But people sent in testimonial upon testimonial attesting to the miraculous powers of Hadacol.

LeBlanc was able to turn Hadacol from a successful regional product worth about $60,000 a year into a booming national enterprise. By 1949 Hadacol was bringing in $24 million a year. But alas, good things must eventually come to an end. In 1951 LeBlanc had become something of legend, however by September of that year his company was $8 million in debt, much to the chagrin of investors. LeBlanc was eventually forced to sell the company for $250,000. Ten years after the decline of Hadacol, LeBlanc insisted in an interview with reporters that it was a “very, very meritorious product. Who is to say that people weren’t helped for those ailments? The doctors? Who can believe them? No my friend, there’s still much that is not known about nutrition.”

The end of Hadacol may appear to have signaled the end of the “great” medicine show, but if you look you can see that it is actually thriving these days. Despite the advances made by health scientists over the last six decades, the health and wellness industry is thriving on questionable claims that are shrouded by fancy presentations, testimonial evidence, support from the pseudo-medical communities, as well as flat-out fraud. If you look at modern commercials, it’s easy to see that the medium has changed but the tactics are the same.The examples of the medicine show, Dudley LeBlanc, and Hadacol show that the tactics used by con artists and pseudoscientists have not changed much over time because unfortunately they still work. We still believe that testimonials given by anti-establishment “everyday” folk are sufficient evidence to support claims. Hype and fallacious appeals to authority are used commercially more often than solid evidence. It is ironic that modern charlatans will spend a huge amount of energy berating the scientific community for “keeping the truth away from the public,” and “clouding the facts with too many difficult to understand details,” yet the minute there is a shred of scientific  sounding evidence to support their claim, the words “scientifically proven,” “Clinical studies show…” and other phrases that make it sound to the public like a person in a white lab coat has proven their claim show up all over labels, commercials, and print ads. The effectiveness of these claims indicates that most of us actually do respect science but may be uncertain about how it works or even intimidated by it.

Image

Exacerbating the problem is that when we are eager to believe in something, the charlatan merely has to tell us what we want to hear, contrive some evidence to back up the claim, and then wait for the financial return. If I could get back all of the money I have given over to ideas that I really wanted to believe that turned out to be implausible or impossible, I’d be in a higher tax bracket. But alas, I have lived and I have learned.

The goal of this post, and indeed of this blog, is to foster a little scientific skepticism about health-related marketing claims. While LeBlanc’s assertions about Hadacol where mostly harmless in their nature, it is important to remember that not all fraudulent claims are harmless. Imagine a cancer patient who decides to forgo scientifically verified therapies in favor of an unproven “natural” therapy then dies because he did so. This may be an extreme example but it never has to happen as long as we approach information like this with a critical mind.

More posts to come…

References


The majority of the information in this post about Dudley LeBlanc and Hadacol can be corroborated in three places:

  1. Anderson, A., Snake oil, Hustlers and Hambones. The American Medicine Show. 2000, Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company Inc.; and Young, J.H.
  2. The Medical Messiahs. A Social History of Health Quackery in Twentieth-Century America. 1967, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
    1. The chapter on LeBlanc is available online at: http://www.quackwatch.org/13Hx/MM/15.html.

The Hadacol Boogie  lyrics are as follows:

Down in Louisiana in the bright sunshine. They do a little boogie-woogie all the time. They do the Hadacol Boogie, Hadacol Boogie. Hadacol Boogie, Boogie-woogie all the time. A-standing on the corner with a bottle in my hand, And stepped up a woman, said, “My Hadacol Man.” She done the Hadacol Boogie, Hadacol Boogie. Hadacol Boogie, Boogie-woogie all the time. If your radiator leaks and your motor stands still, A-give her Hadacol and watch her boogie up the hill.  She’ll do the Hadacol Boogie, Hadacol Boogie, The Hadacol Boogie makes you boogie-woogie all the time

I haven’t been able to find the lyrics to Who put the pep in Grandma but if anybody has them or better yet a recording of the song please let me know at petruchio71@gmail.com.  I would be eternally grateful.

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One thought on “Healthy Skepticism: The Great American Medicine Show

  1. Pingback: Aspartame And Our Health | Healthy Skepticism

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