“Snake oil”—the etymology of this term (as it's used today) involves a wild story that demonstrates what can happen when traditional medicine techniques are manipulated for profit.
During the 1800s many Chinese workers arrived in the US as indentured laborers. They often worked long hours building the Transcontinental Railroad, were underpaid (especially in comparison to white counterparts), and most were bound by years-long contracts. It’s estimated that 180,000 Chinese workers immigrated to the US between 1849 and 1882. Many of these
Chinese workers came from peasant families in the southeastern part of China, and brought with them traditional medicine, including snake oil. This oil was derived from the Chinese water snake – oil is rich in omega 3 acids, which reduce inflammation. Snake oil was used to treat arthritis and bursitis. Chinese water snake oil contains 20 percent eicosapentaenoic acid —higher than salmon, which is often touted as an excellent source of omega 3 acids.
The efficacy of snake oil caught the attention of show medicine performers and patent medicine peddlers. “Healers” began selling boiled “rattle snake oil,” which—spoiler alert— does not contain high amounts of omega 3 acids, and “snake oil” became a staple in show medicine. It also was lauded for curing headaches, kidney problems, “female complaints,” and chronic pain. Most notable among the corrupt snake oil peddlers was Clark Stanley, aka The Rattlesnake King.
His performance included killing and “boiling” a rattlesnake onstage as part of the act. Stanley the “former cowboy claimed he had learned about the healing power of rattlesnake oil from Hopi medicine men. He never publicly mentioned Chinese snake oil at all.” [Codeswitch, NPR] Stanley’s “Snake Oil” was later discovered to contain mineral oil, a fatty oil believed to be beef fat, red pepper, and turpentine.
See the podcast The Maintenance Phase for thoughtful research on the surprising story of snake oil. The episode gives the oil of the Chinese water snake its due, and emphasizes that history often repeats itself: capitalist interests in traditional medicine can lead to unwholesome outcomes.
“A History of Snake Oil Salesmen”
“How Snake Oil Got a Bad Rap”