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October 16, 1987

Snake Oil

Author Affiliations

The Medical Center of Delaware Wilmington

The Medical Center of Delaware Wilmington

JAMA. 1987;258(15):2066. doi:10.1001/jama.1987.03400150058027

To the Editor.—  In his interesting review of American folk medicines, Dr Whorton1 suggests that snake oil was used as a specific treatment for arthritis because of the suppleness of the snake. That is probably not the only reason. Snakes, or a specific kind, the viper, were included in many medicines, but particularly in the theriacs, multi-ingredient panaceas of which the most famous, touted by Galen himself, included vipers. Whether the vipers were best included as dried powder or as oil and whether they should be stimulated into a rage before cooking them were subjects of considerable debate for many centuries.2 The most famous theriac, that of Andromachus, was the one Galen advertised; Andromachus is said to have first added viper to his theriac when a viper's victim was cured by drinking water in which several vipers had drowned.3Dr William Heberden, of anginal fame, campaigned to