Why Understanding the Real History of Snake Oil…and How it Became Synonymous with Quackery…is Critical to Understand for Your Health Today
Plus, The Legitimate Claims and Functions of Real Snake Oil…
Say the words “snake oil” and quackery and fake medicines immediately pops up in your mind. Or “snake oil salesman” and you know you got a con-man, a fraud and a charlatan on your hands.
Yet to understand the history of snake oil is to take a fascinating ride.
Our story starts when over one hundred thousand Chinese workers immigrated to the US in the mid to late 1800’s. Many of them contracted to work on the Transcontinental railroad.
The Chinese, having a rich culture of herbalism (and herbs not being just plants either), brought many of their medicines with them.
One of these was the oil of the Chinese water snake aka Snake Oil.
This oil would be rubbed on the skin over the joints and it served to work as a great liniment, easing pain, inflammation and arthritis. This was extremely useful to have on hand when laying down railroad tracks for sixteen hours a day. In short, the snake oil worked.
The Chinese shared it with other Americans. Many found that it worked too. But the Chinese water snake was hard to come by for obvious reasons. What the West had plenty of was rattlesnakes and so snake oil was made from them.
One interesting point is that Chinese water snake oil almost 20 percent EPA, the long chain omega-3 fatty acid. To compare this salmon oil is only 18 percent! And the lowly rattlesnake was between 0.6-4.1 percent EPA. (Though the 5.4% DHA in the red rattlesnake is interesting.) We’ll get to why this is important shortly…
But the selling of rattlesnake oil in lieu of the Chinese water snake was just the start.
Though it does turn out that the Choctaw Native Americans, as well as other tribes did use rattlesnake oil for pain from rheumatoid arthritis.
Along came Clark Stanley aka The Rattle Snake King
Stanley claimed he had learned the secrets of rattlesnake oil from Hopi medicine men.
And at the 1893 World’s Exposition in Chicago, he caused quite a stir by slicing open a rattlesnake, throwing it into boiling water, and skimming off the oil straight into a bottle, which he then sold as a liniment.
Still we’re not quite to the point of how snake oil became synonymous with quackery.
Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment became a great seller.
The problem was…it didn’t include snake oil!
Hucksters selling “snake oil” and other patent medicines led to the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1907. This effectively formed the FDA.
The FDA reached a decision in 1917, fining Clark Stanley $20, for selling snake oil which only contained mineral oil, beef fat, capsicum and possible traces of camphor and turpentine. 
That $20 fine would be the equivalent of about $429 today.
The “Snake Oil = Fraud” Idea Catches On
Along with other con-men and hucksters selling all kinds of dubious products and then skipping town, the prominent snake oil can to be the symbol of it all.
Soon enough, fictitious snake oil salesmen characters made there way into poems, plays, books (like Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), and soon enough, radio and TV.
Nowadays, the idea is so often repeated that we all know what it means. Except we don’t.
Snake oil SHOULD mean a product that doesn’t work because it doesn’t contain what it says it contains.
Yet instead, snake oil is generally considered to be a falsely promoted, unscientific product.
Find Out Why the Idea of Snake Oil May Just Be…Well…Snake Oil!
Earlier we showed a tiny bit of scientific research that looked at the fatty acid content of snake oil. This article then goes on to say:
“As a concentrated source of EPA, snake oil is a credible anti-inflammatory agent and might indeed confer therapeutic benefits. Since essential fatty acids are known to absorb transdermally, it is not far-fetched to think that inflamed skin and joints could benefit by the actual anti-inflammatory action of locally applied oil just as the Chinese physicians and our medical quacks have claimed.
“It is not unusual that an ancient remedy or a folk medicine turns out to have some merit. What is unusual is that this particular therapy, snake oil, has long been our favorite symbol of quackery. I find it humbling that the science of today invests the quackery of yesterday with new credibility. Perhaps our ancestors were wiser than we could appreciate when they wrapped a snake around the staff of Aesculapius.”
That’s the thing. When we investigate ancient wisdom and claims in “herbal medicine”…more often then not…we find there is truth there.
Actual Research on Snake Oil
That shows a plausible scientific rationale for how snake oil could actually work. So, let me see. Is there any other research on snake oil?
A search of ‘snake oil’ on Pubmed brings up 185 results. Of these about three quarters of them are simply using the term to question something else like stem cell therapy, fish oil, coffee, DHEA, cinnamon, probiotics, sports medicine specialists and even Pokemon GO…seriously.
There’s a few that are off topic. And then a grand total of four scientific papers actually about snakes and their oil!
The Erabu sea snake oil which was fed to mice placed in a swimming endurance test. They compared this against lard and fish oil. The Erabu sea snake oil group was able to swim longer. 
And Boa Constrictor Fat was found to inhibit human fibroblast growth in vitro. 
And a second study on the Boa. This one found “potent anti-inflammatory and a significant antimicrobial activity of the fat from Boa constrictor”. 
There’s one Brazilian study that looked at anti-microbial effects of oil of the Spilotes pullatus Linn. species of snake. They found it was not antimicrobial or antifungal but did modulate certain antibiotics. 
That’s it. That’s all the research on snake oil that exists. Most of it seems positive. Though none of it refers to the original snake (Chinese water snake) nor the original use (topically for joint pain). Though we did see boa constrictor oil was anti-inflammatory too.
If the anecdotal evidence from long ago says snake oil works, and the very limited, off-topic but overall positive scientific research says something is there, what does that say about actual snake oil?
Yet the real charlatans claim that snake oil doesn’t work because snake oil couldn’t possibly work.
Pseudo-science, at least by the original definition, meant something that couldn’t be investigated scientifically. But this label is thrown around haphazardly….like on snake oil.
Join us in taking back the term SNAKE OIL!
Because, after all in my opinion, what is the real snake oil?
Realize that there is lots of genuine fraud in the standard FDA-approved medical system and pharmaceutical drugs. Not all of them, but in many.