As scientists in the early 1900s began to learn more about diabetes, their ability to diagnose the disease improved. But with more cases diagnosed, a real treatment remained elusive. Before the breakthrough discovery of insulin, many people, desperate to believe they could be cured, turned to elixirs to treat their diabetes.
Here’s an excerpt from BREAKTHROUGH: Elizabeth Hughes, the Discovery of Insulin and the Making of a Medical Miracle by Thea Cooper and Arthur Ainsberg:
By 1920, the death rate from diabetes would be double what it was twenty years before, and the number of diagnoses was rising. It appeared that medical research was losing ground.
The rise in diagnoses fertilized a burgeoning business of fad diets, patent medicines, and hope cures hawked by unscrupulous opportunists, hucksters, and self- described healers. The oat cure, the legume cure, potato therapy, lime water, sweet wine, rancid meat, high carbohydrates, low carbohydrates, high- fat diets, low- fat diets, horse back riding, abstinence from plant products, even opium— each had been heralded as a miracle cure for juvenile diabetes. (26)
The use of elixirs that promised to cure disease was not isolated to diabetes. A new article in the Atlantic examines the history of hawking “snake oil” and has a great slideshow of original bottles of patent medicine (including the one above) from Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History patent medicine collection. You can link to the article here.