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......
Boa constrictor oil has potent anti-inflammatory and significant antimicrobial activity against S. aureus and S. pyrogenes.
Pubmed Data : 1: Acta Pol Pharm. 2008 Jul-Aug;65(4):477-80.
Article Published Date : Jul 01, 2008
Study Type : Human Study
Pubmed Data : 1: Ann Nutr Metab. 2006;50(5):425-32. Epub 2006 Jul 17.
Article Published Date : Jan 01, 2006
Study Type : Animal Study
Erabu sea snake oil improves the swimming endurance of aged mice by attenuating lactate production and enhancing lactate clearance.
Pubmed Data : 1: J Nutr Sci Vitaminol (Tokyo). 2007 Dec;53(6):476-81.
Article Published Date : Dec 01, 2007
Study Type : Animal Study
Substances : Snake Lipids : CK(15) : AC(4)
The fat from the boa constrictor has an inhibitor effect on keloid and normal dermal fibroblasts, which may contribute to the inhibition of scarring.
Pubmed Data : 1: Br J Plast Surg. 1990 Mar;43(2):183-6.
Article Published Date : Mar 01, 1990
Study Type : In Vitro Study
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.