For many centuries the Chinese used snake oil as a treatment for joint pain, arthritis and bursitis. They brought this folk remedy with them when they arrived in the US in the mid-1800's to build the Transcontinental Railroad. That was backbreaking work. Synthetic pain-killers such as aspirin were not yet freely available. When the Chinese workers offered their remedy to Westerners as a palliative it was likely perceived to be a "primitive" form of "quackery" by the medical experts of that time. This is one probable origin of the derogatory meaning of the word "snake oil."
The ironic thing about modern pharmaceutical "snake oil," i.e. petrochemical-derived and patented synthetic chemicals, is that they often have considerably less value than a placebo, and in certain cases may not even compare in therapeutic value to actual snake oil.
To prove the point, below are listed four remarkable studies, as cited on the National Library of Medicine's bibliographic database known as Medline, referring to the potential therapeutic properties of sea snake and boa constrictor lipids -- snake oil! -- for inflammation and infection......
We don't, of course, advocate consuming snake oil when other powerful, natural anti-inflammatory fats are readily available from less sentient sources: flaxseed oil, for instance. Or, if you are really interested in the topic, here are 223 natural substances with demonstrable anti-inflammatory activity, many of which are foods, nutrients, spices and herbs.
The point here is that when age-old invectives like "snake-oil" are hurled at those advocating natural approaches to healing by those who would claim synthetic chemicals are the only "real" or evidence-based alternatives, the "insult" itself reveals a subconscious acknowledgement that practically all things produced by Nature have medicinal value.
Let's look closer at another example of purported "snake oil": the traditional practice among the Maori and Chinese of eating earthworms to settle an upset stomach. Long considered an obscene, disgusting, "folk medicine" practice, these 3 scientific studies tell quite a different story:
In the first two studies, earthworms are shown superior to Ranitidine as an anti-ulcer, gastroprotective agent. Ranitidine is a chemical which blocks the H2-histamine receptors in the parietal cells in the stomach that produce hydrochloric acid, and is sold under the trade name Zantac. Until Zantac lost its patent in 1997, global sales reached 1.6 billion dollars annually. And yet despite these blockbuster sales, its value as a "medicine" compares poorly to the consumption of creatures that live beneath our feet, and who also, incidentally, make possible all the food we consume through their indispensable role in producing fecund soil.
So which is the "snake-oil," the infatuated object of "quackery"? Synthetic chemicals excreted by a vast petrochemical-medical-industrial complex, and re-purposed and repackaged to the consumer as "medicines"? Or, natural substances and organisms traditionally used as food-medicines, sometimes for thousands of years before the advent of modern, scientism- and drug-driven medicine?
Just for the record, I won't be eating worms any time soon. But given the choice between a chemical, with no biological or evolutionary precedent in my body, and an earthworm or sip of actual snake oil, I will gladly choose the latter.
Be sure to check out the other 40 instances of research showing Science confirming Traditional Medicine from around the world.