Medicine on the Radio

On February 18, 1922, B.J. Palmer took to the airwaves of radio station WOC:

“WOC is coming to you from the Up-E-Nuf tower atop the Palmer School of Chiropractic, the Chiropractic Fountain Head, in Davenport, Iowa, where the west begins and in the state where the tall corn grows!  Broadcasting by authority of the Federal Radio Commission…”

Palmer at the WHO mic

Palmer was the son of chiropractic’s founder, D.D. Palmer. A lover of technology and a savvy businessman, Palmer quickly saw the potential of this new technology to communicate messages to a large audience. He hoped that by spreading the message of chiropractic that he could “broaden listener’s intellectual power” and ultimately, “uplift the American standard of intelligence.” Although the station call letters were arbitrarily assigned, Palmer seized on a marketing opportunity when he saw one and proclaimed that WOC stood for “Wonders of Chiropractic.” It became the nation’s first commercial radio station west of the Mississippi.

Broadcasting from the Palmer School of Chiropractic, the Wonders of Chiropractic” drew nearly one million listeners daily. Programming extended beyond spines and adjustments to include sports, news, farm reports, stock updates, music, and church services. In fact, one of its early sportscasters was a young Ronald Reagan who recreated sports events for fans in the Quad Cities. Games weren’t called live as they are today. Instead, sportscasters would dramatize the game based on information picked up from the tele-type. So the job required an interest in sports as well as decent storytelling skills.

But chiropractic education remained a big part of the schedule and Palmer would take to the airwaves each evening to explain the benefits of chiropractic care. “The Mission of WOC is to establish Good Will for Chiropractic,” Palmer explained. “WOC is educating millions to a favorable mental receptivity to Chiropractic.” He proudly proclaimed that the name chiropractic was said on air an average of 28 times daily.

Thousands of people came to visit the WOC studios, anxious to see radio in action. Visitors saw the recording studios but also the music room where the Palmer School of Chiropractic Orchestra performed.

Palmer later went on to purchase another station in Des Moines. Its call letters were WHO, or “With Hands Only,” the standard method of chiropractic adjustment.  Palmer also wrote a book for radio broadcasters called Radio Salesmenship in 1942 that became a standard in broadcasting schools. He later added television stations to his broadcasting venture, truly embracing all avenues to spread the gospel of chiropractic.

Both stations are still around today, though chiropractic education has slipped from the schedule. Palmer’s story is a fascinating piece of early radio history.

Colorful Pills for Colorful People

In the 19th century, Pink Pills for Pale People offered hope. And if that didn’t work, there was always Dr. Wilson’s Blue Pills for Blue People. Or Red Pills for Pale and Weak Women.

Directions for use of the Pink Pills for Pale People

At a time when little about the human body or medicine was understood, millions of people sent away for patent medicines. These remedies were sold on street corners and in theaters, and in the pages of newspapers and periodicals. Despite the name, few were actually patented. To do so would have meant revealing the secret ingredients that made these pills, powders, and elixirs so appealing. Instead, the names were trademarked and the ingredients proprietary.

These patent medicines are what most people think of when they hear the word “quack.” Bottles filled with dangerous mixes of alcohol or opium, aromatics, and coloring, sold by charlatans masquerading as doctors or scientists preying on the innocent and uninformed. But the actual story is a bit more fuzzy.

Sure, some people out to make a quick buck sold potentially lethal remedies. But many were sold by people who truly believed in the remedies they sold. Lydia Pinkham, for instance, sold a vegetable compound for female complaints based on a remedy she had used for years that riffed on several recipes found in John King’s American Dispensatory, a popular botanical handbook. Pinkham’s remedy contained a lot of alcohol – 18% – a not uncommon phenomenon among these remedies, but it’s harder to say if she was a true charlatan. As medical historian Roy Porter has written, “The historian cannot peer into the souls of ‘quacks’ and find foolproof evidence of fraud.”

Many other proprietary remedies were sold by actual doctors. Doctoring didn’t quite pay in the 19th century what it does today (in fact, as unbelievable as it sounds today, many doctors had two jobs to get by) so some doctors came up with their own remedies to sell and support their families. Others believed they had found a truly miraculous remedy that they wanted to offer to the public. Still other doctors prescribed patent remedies to patients.

All of this is to say that patent medicines, the realm of the quack in the popular imagination, are far more complicated than they at first appear.  Right or wrong, patent remedies promised affordable relief to many people who could not afford or did not have access to medical care.

World Posture Queen

I have a bit of a “thing” for beauty queens. Not Ms. America or Ms. Universe. But agricultural queens like Alice in Dairyland and the Wisconsin cranberry queen, food product queens like the Swiss Miss (an actual “Miss” at one point), and my newest discovery, the World Posture Queen.

The World Posture Queen was the queen of chiropractic, a way to publicize the fledgling healing system. The contest began in Michigan in 1955 as a way to bring attention to the annual meeting of the Michigan Academy of Chiropractic. The young woman with the straightest spine and the most perfect poise and personality would win. Contestants were given X-rays to determine whose spine was the straightest. Crooked spines were grounds for elimination. While strictly a local event the first year, the World Posture Pageant went national in year two, and international by year three.

Posture queens appeared on TV, including “What’s My Line” and “The Tonight Show.” In 1967,  World Posture Queen Ruth McCarter visited the White House and got a personal tour of the Rose Garden by President Johnson.

For fifteen years, World Posture Queens brought attention to chiropractic, prompting the 1958 issue of Chiropractic Economics to announce that “Posture Contests are BIG Business.” Despite its apparent success, the contest for perfect posture was discontinued in 1969. The demands of the contest were simply too much for its organizers.


Curing the (Historic) Common Cold

Toads for colds? It sounds like a joke. Or a witch’s brew. But in the mid-19th century, Madison doctor Hugh Greeley recommended a powder of toads for fever. “Take toads as many as you will, alive, [and] put them in an earthen pot,” he instructed. The toads were then set over an open flame. Once sufficiently cooked, they were cooled and then ground to a dark powder, mixed with a liquid – hopefully something strong and alcoholic – and drunk. For prevention, “half a dram will suffice,” counseled the good Dr. Greeley.

Winter in Wisconsin means snow, ice, and frigid temperatures. But it’s also the peak of the cold and flu season. The case was just the same more than a century ago, though the remedies were a little different.

George Howard, the first pharmacist in La Crosse, mixed many of his own special medicinal blends in the 1850s. He had remedies for everything from runny noses and headaches to something far more exciting: love potions. The lovelorn sent Howard letters begging for help. In return, he sent them powders to match a popular 19th century nursery rhyme. Women got “sugar and spice” and all that’s nice, while men got “snips and snails” (no one is quite sure what “snips” mean, though, the original line may have been “snips of snails” with “snips” meaning a little bit). Howard claimed to have received nothing but grateful “thank yous” in return.

A few decades later, Fond du Lac resident Wyman Towns began selling bottles of his special Cold Killer to cold sufferers through the mail. It wasn’t his only offering. He also sold Towns’ Healing Snuff and Towns’ Rheumatic Liniment among other patent medicines. The ingredients of these remedies were kept secret – that’s what made them patent medicines – so we don’t know if Towns shared Dr. Greeley’s affection for powdered toads.

In the early 20th century, reporter Marcelia Neff remarked in the pages of the Milwaukee Journal that traditional Indian remedies could be very effective in curing what she called “neurotic white people.” Most of these remedies were made of native plants ground into powders or pastes or drunk as tea. A poultice of sumac leaves could relieve a sore throat: as could a mixture of bloodroot juice and maple syrup. Headache relief came with a tincture of aster leaves. The boiled bark of red maple did wonders for sore, red eyes.

Botanical cures had a long history in American medicine. European colonists relied on herbal remedies. They cultivated local plants for their healing powers often with the help of Native Americans. So important was the need for medicinal plants that the British crown ordered the 17th century Virginia colony to cultivate gardens of native plants for relief of coughs, colds, and worse.

And if none of those worked, there was always alcohol. Appleton resident Alfred Galpin recalled that his grandfather kept a healthy supply of brandy in his settler’s cabin in case of colds. While the alcohol surely didn’t cure, it could certainly dull or at least distract from sinus pain and pressure.

Sure, many of these remedies may seem ridiculous to us today, but the answer to the common cold still alludes us. So if you get a cold this winter, just know you have lots of company, both in the past and today.


A Water Cure of Their Own

An escape to the country for rest, relaxation, and lots of water was just what many people seeking water cures in the mid-19th century wanted. And when we think of our own habits of escaping to somewhere watery and cool in hot weather, it seems crazy that water cures actually advertised the opposite – that winter, or at least more temperate times of year, were the best time to take the cure.  It certainly had its perils. The cold could quickly freeze the wet blankets wrapped around patients. One patient complained of icicles raining down on his head when he stopped at the outdoor shower for his daily wash. It was all part of the cure, though.

While all kinds of people traveled to water cures, women found them particularly attractive. For many, it was one of the few times in their life when they could put the needs of their husbands, children, and homes aside. A stay at the cure was a chance for women to be pampered at a time when womanhood offered little in the way comfort for any but the very wealthy.

Writer Harriet Beecher Stowe (of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fame) discovered the wonders of the water cure on her own visit to the Brattleboro Hydropathic Institute in Brattleboro, Vermont. Suffering from the death of her brother, a recent miscarriage, chronic mercury poisoning (from previous medical care), and cholera, Stowe described herself as reduced to a state of “uselessness,” and in dire need of some medical attention. So she traveled to Brattleboro in 1846 to try the water cure. She liked it so much, her husband Calvin feared she might never come home.

“Not for years, have I enjoyed life as I have here,” Stowe admitted, “real keen enjoyment – everything agrees with me.” She loved the daily exercise – “I walk habitually five miles a day – at intervals between my baths, never in my poorest days less than three – and in some good days I have walked 7 – & not suffered for it.” It was some of the most vigorous activity she’d had in years. As a married woman, her mobility had become insular and mostly indoors, limited to the movements of the housewife and mother. She also loved the companionship of her fellow patients. In January, Stowe wrote “We still splash on here & it grows colder & colder.” The bar she held on to during her outdoor shower was covered with a half-inch of ice but she still took 5 or 6 showers a day and walked miles in the cold Vermont countryside.

Calvin grew less enthused with the water cure, though, as his wife’s absence stretched on for more than a year. He couldn’t wait for her to return,  reminding her that it had been “almost 18 months since I have had a wife to sleep with me. It is enough to kill any man.”

Stowe did eventually come home, but she never forgot the pleasures of the water cure and the brief space she had that was all her own.

Taste Lost and Found

One Memorial Day weekend, I lost my sense of smell.  Bad colds sometimes do that to you. But this was different. Two weeks later, my cold was gone but it had apparently delivered a knockout punch to my nose.
A ten-beer sampler at a local microbrewery tasted like ten variations of faintly flavored water. Ice cream was cold but nothing more.
A month later.  Still nothing.
There’s no good time to lose your sense of smell, but summer is the worst. I’d waited all year for the short window that yields tender stalks of my favorite vegetable, asparagus. Juicy corn and chin-dripping tomatoes awaited me finally, after months of what I refer to each year as our “orange period:” dinners consisting of sweet potatoes, squash, rutabagas, and carrots, the upper Midwestern winter staples, in dozens of iterations.
For me, summer is a smorgasbord of flavor and variety. Our weekly CSA box brims with vegetables that appear, like a Broadway star, for but a few weeks only. But without my nose, it became the year without summer.
Anosmia is the medical name for loss of smell. It affects millions of Americans, some temporarily and others permanently.
Taste is dependent on smell. When food is chewed, odors travel to the back of the mouth where a properly functioning olfactory system translates them into flavor. A malfunction can cause taste to remain intact—that is, the mouth can distinguish temperature, texture, and among sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. What’s missing is flavor—the sense that lets you savor the chocolaty undertones of your stout beer and the tang of tomato salsa. Sometimes the smell and taste loss can be restored if it is linked to a specific problem like diabetes. But if the loss resulted from olfactory-nerve damage from a head trauma or, in my case, a viral infection, there is no reliable cure, save for time and hope that the nerves will regenerate.
Slowly, my sense of smell came back. An overall blandness yielded to subtle shades of salty and sour. By early fall, eating had become almost fun again.
But not everything was right. The rewiring of my olfactory nerves had a faulty connection.
Washing my hair with some orange-scented shampoo one morning, I felt nauseated by the smell. Citrus, but particularly oranges, had become disgusting in my newly reordered brain. After months of not smelling them at all, oranges came rushing back at me with a vengeance.
I avoided them at first. It’s easy to do when you live in Wisconsin and try to eat locally. But orange-scented products and orange wedges in drinks and garnishes appear in a surprising number of places and had me running for the door.
I thought maybe I could retrain myself to like oranges. I’d “trained” myself to eat other things by introducing them regularly into my meals, like raw tomatoes. I drank small sips of orange juice for a week, screwing up my face in disgust with each swallow and shoving the glass across the table to my husband to finish. I ate orange wedges and garnishes, choking them down one bite at a time and chasing them with water to drown out what had insensibly become a horrible flavor.
And it actually worked. Almost a year later, I could drink a small glass of orange juice and eat an orange wedge without feeling nauseous. I still don’t order orange juice for breakfast and I can’t remember the last time I ate a whole orange, but I know that I can now. And maybe someday, I will.

Women Doctors and Healers

Nearly all of the medical sects that emerged in the 19th century gave unprecedented professional and leadership opportunities to women. Women had long been responsible for their family’s health, growing medicinal plants in kitchen gardens, tending to the sick, and serving as midwives for family and neighbors. Home healing was part of her domestic responsibilities: caring and tending being largely female character traits.

But for the most part, women couldn’t be doctors. That was a role for men who could enroll in medical schools or apprentice with trained doctors. For various reasons, it wasn’t deemed suitable for women, and women were mostly kept out of mainstream medicine until the 20th century.

Medical reformers had a different view of women, though. Most not only welcomed female practitioners, they allowed them to attend their medical schools and training programs. Women became leaders of alternative medicine associations and opened their own private medical offices. Mary Gove Nichols opened her own water cure, and Lydia Folger Fowler, only the second woman to graduate with a medical degree in the United States, had a private medical office in New York City.

Hydropathy, or the water cure, took a particularly liberating view of women. Contemporary medical theory viewed being female as a disease in of itself. Women were irrational and ruled by their wombs. The natural processes of a woman’s life–menstruation, pregnancy–were seen as diseases that needed to be controlled, usually by men. To be female was to be a problem in need of a solution. Hydropaths took a different path, choosing not to medicalize women. They instead viewed women’s life events as natural and normal, and argued that hydropathy gave women control over their bodies; something they rarely had in any part of their lives. This was an empowering and radical idea that attracted a large number of women eager to exert control over their own bodies and their own lives.

Hydropath Mary Gove Nichols

Homeopathy, osteopathy, Thomsonism, and phrenology were among the many others that welcomed women into their fields. And doing so, allowed their movements to grow exponentially.

Many women wouldn’t talk about health issues with a male doctor. Women in alternative medicine discussed topics and introduced health concepts that many women would never have learned about otherwise. These women doctors gave lectures on women’s and children’s health, and wrote books geared specifically toward women. At water cures, women were needed to serve as attendants and doctors to female visitors.

This more open attitude toward women was, in part, a reflection of the times. Middle class reformers of all kinds worked to make the world a better, cleaner, safer, free-er, happier place in the 19th century. Women played a particularly active role in reform efforts, as they were one way that women could be politically active and still maintain their womanly “virtue.” Many of the same people that were attracted to abolition and woman’s rights were also attracted to medical reform. The lines between all these reformers blurred and overlapped in innumerable ways, so it wasn’t too surprising that women would become such prominent players in alternative medicine.

Perhaps it’s just more surprising, and disappointing, that it took so long for mainstream medicine to come around.

Mark Twain’s head reading

Everyone had their head examined in the 19th century. Phrenologists read the heads of common people and famous people, from President Ulysses S. Grant and poet Walt Whitman to nurse and Red Cross founder Clara Barton. Even Mark Twain, who was never quite sure what to make of phrenology.


Visiting London in 1873, Mark Twain saw an advertisement for the services of a fellow American who had hung his shingle on Fleet Street. Inspired and not a little skeptical, Twain appeared under a fictitious name in the offices of Lorenzo Niles Fowler, “practical phrenologist.”
Phrenology wasn’t new to him. It had captured the imagination of millions of Americans and made everyone a little head conscious. Twain remembered the itinerant phrenologists from his years in Hannibal, Missouri, giving demonstrations and offering advice.
Entering, Twain “found Fowler on duty, amidst the impressive symbols of his trade…all about the room stood marble-white busts, hairless, every inch of the skull occupied by a shallow bump, and every bump labeled with its imposing name, in black letters.”
Twain paid Fowler for a reading. It’s not clear whether he attempted to disguise his physical appearance or if he at least chose to wear something other than his trademark white suit. Either way, Fowler gave no indication that he recognized Twain.
The reading was fairly typical, a balanced stew of mostly generic, positive traits, save for one spot particularly galling to the famed humorist. “[H]e found a cavity, in one place; a cavity where a bump would have been in anyone else’s skull,” recalled Twain. “He startled me by saying that that cavity represented the total absence of the sense of humor!”

Hydropathy in the Family

I drink a lot of water every day. And I walk a lot, everywhere in fact, many, many, many miles a day. So when I first started reading about hydropathy, I could easily see myself fitting right in with the hydropaths. They instructed patients to drink at least 12 glasses of water (actually “tumblers”) a day and to walk as far as possible between treatments. One guy, James Wilson, took the advice to drink a lot of water a little overboard–he drank more than thirty glasses before breakfast while staying at the original hydropathy institute in Grafenberg, Germany. When he started his own water cure in England, he gave everyone glasses so they could follow his lead.

As it turns out, I’m not the only one with hydropathic sympathies in the family. On a recent trip to visit my parents, I discovered that my great-grandmother graduated from the Kellberg Institute for Hygiene, Massage, and Medical Gymnastics in Chicago with a specialty in water-therapeutics. She was a 20th century hydropath! No wonder I love all this medical history!

Medical gymnastics is what we would think of as just exercising today. It was the use of physical exercise as a therapy to restore or stay healthy. The medical and health benefits of exercising don’t need to be justified today, but until the 20th century, many people were not sure that exercise wasn’t harmful, especially to women.

From my very limited initial research, it appears that the Kellberg Institute was founded by Swedish immigrants (my great-grandmother was also a Swedish immigrant to Chicago). This makes sense as the Swedes had been particularly interested in the use of gymnastics for health since the early 19th century. They used gymnastics to improve the physical fitness of the general public in schools, in the military and as a medical healing process. 

Medical gymnastics in action

Per Henrik Ling developed the Swedish gymnastic system in the early 19th century. He was a fencing master, and with his son Hjalmer, he developed a program of functional physical gymnastics training. They founded the Central Gymnastic Institute in Stockholm in 1813 to provide training for teachers and members of the military. Ling’s Swedish gymnastics programs had four parts: medical, aesthetic, military and pedagogic. Training involved the correct performance of prescribed gymnastic movements under the watchful eye of a trainer.

Other European countries followed Sweden’s lead and instituted gymnastics programs to aid physical healing and to promote health from the early 19th century onward. This was likely the program taught at the Kellberg Institute to graduates like my great-grandmother.  

By the 20th century, hydropathy in its original form had virtually disappeared, morphed into an overall system of hygiene and exercise that would be quite recognizable as the keys to good health today: exercise, a sensible diet, plenty of sleep, and lots of water. 

Bloomers and the Water Cure

Amelia Bloomer is a name that many people who study women’s history even a little bit tend to know. She’s the namesake of “bloomers,” a style of dress that became popular among women’s rights advocates and dress reformers in the 19th century. Bloomer, the woman, didn’t invent the costume, but she was an early and ardent advocate of them and as a result, gave her name to the style. Bloomers consisted of a loosely fitting coat or dress that reached below the knees and a pair of billowing pants similar to Turkish trousers (picture MC Hammer or the Disney-fied Aladdin) gathered at the ankles.

Although widely associated with women’s rights, bloomers were actually one of the treatment outfits for those taking a water cure. Hydropathy, as the water-cure system, was known was a popular form of medical therapy in the United States from the 1820s to the 1860s. The basic idea was that cold water was pure and clean and could therefore cure just about any disease. People “took” water in any number of ways but the most common was a wet sheet that would be wrapped around a patient for several hours until he or she sweated. An alternative to the sheet was a wet dress, which was introduced at a hydropathic institute and later became the model of the bloomer costume. Women who took the water cure often sometimes cut their hair short for easy drying and felt themselves free from the prevailing and restrictive women’s fashion.

The wet dress was introduced to the fashion world by Elizabeth Smith who displayed her fashion to women’s rights leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Amelia Bloomer discovered it when Stanton came for a visit and she soon began writing about it enthusiastically in her magazine, The Lily. Articles on the bloomer trend were soon picked up by other publications and it came to be dubbed “bloomers” for Bloomer’s advocacy of it for women. Bloomer herself along with other wearers of bloomers suffered merciless ridicule for their fashion choice.

The bloomers adoption by the women’s rights movement also damaged its reputation among hydropaths. Bloomers came to be associated with female radicalism and its followers were suspected of free love and of a desire to be free of all feminine graces.

Amelia Bloomer mostly abandoned the bloomer in 1859 but she continued to fight for women’s rights and for more sensible, less restrictive clothing for women for the rest of her life.