A Smile So Sharp It Will Split Atoms

German radioactive toothpaste quack medicine

From 1940 to 1945, if you wanted to acquire radioactive material in Germany, you didn’t have to engage in cloak-and-dagger shenanigans; you simply had to go to the nearest pharmacy and purchase a tube of Doramad toothpaste. 

Doramad was produced with small quantities of radioactive thorium. This wasn’t a manufacturing accident; it was an intentional marketing strategy. 

Translation: “Its radioactive radiation increases the defenses of teeth and gums. The cells are loaded with new life energy, the bacteria are hindered in their destroying effect. This explains the excellent prophylaxis and healing process with gingival diseases. It gently polishes the dental enamel so it turns white and shiny. Prevents dental calculus. Wonderful lather and a new, pleasant, mild and refreshing taste. Can be applied sparingly.”

Aside from being the poster child of quack medicine, Doramad played an interesting role in the race to develop the atomic bomb. U.S. intelligence agents were alarmed to learn that unusually-large amounts of thorium were being bought up by Germany. This suggested that German research toward the atomic bomb had progressed further than previously had been thought. 

It was only as the war drew to a close that investigators learned the real reason for the thorium shipments. Savvy German entrepreneurs were decades ahead of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” proposal. They were stocking up on radioactive material so they could make money selling a ground-breaking product. Their marketing slogan was, “Use toothpaste with thorium! Have sparkling, brilliant teeth—radioactive brilliance!”

Read more about toothpaste and the race for the Bomb here

Pucker Up and Kiss Your Allergies Goodbye

hajime kimata
Dr. Hajime Kimata, who operates an allergy clinic in Neyagawa, Osaka (Phtoto: Hajime Kimata Clinic)

Countless songs, poems, and dramatic works have been written about the power of a kiss. You may have been unaware of one of the additional benefits of the exercise: allergy reduction.

Dr. Hajime Kimata, a Japanese scientist who specializes in allergy research, published the findings of his study on how kissing affected allergic reactions in patients in 2003. Writing for the Journal of Physiology & Behavior, Kimata explained the experiment involving three groups of people — two groups affected by either eczema or hay fever and a control group affected by neither.

All of the patients were Japanese, who “do not kiss habitually,” according to Kimata.

The groups had their skin tested for their reactions to Japanese cedar pollen, dust mites and histamine. After kissing for 30 minutes while listening to “soft music,” such as Celine Dion’s love ballad “My Heart Will Go On,” the patients had their skin tested again for allergic reactions.

Kimata found that for the groups of patients with eczema and hay fever, their skin did not react as much to Japanese cedar pollen and dust mites after 30 minutes of kissing. Their reaction to histamine, however, was not affected.

For this breakthrough research, Dr. Kimata was awarded the 2015 Ig Nobel Prize for Medicine. The Ig Nobel Prize is awarded each year by Improbable Research and is dedicated to the concept, “First make people laugh, and then think.” For other recent Ig Nobel recipients, read this article.

“I wish that people will understand the new effect of kissing and I also hope that kissing will bring not only love but also attenuation of allergic reaction,” Hajime Kimata, who could not attend the 25th annual event, said in a videotaped acceptance speech. “I am honored to be awarded the Ig Nobel Prize and I appreciate it very much.”


Gunshot Wound? Don’t Worry, Son… I’m Sure There’s An App for That

webmdEvery child believes his or her mom can fix every boo-boo. Sometimes that faith can be misplaced.

Consider the case of the 14-year-old son of Deborah Tagle, who received a gunshot wound to the leg in May 2013. The injury occurred when a friend of the family accidentally discharged his firearm.

Not being the kind of mom who is prone to overreaction, this Santa Fe, Texas mom had her son sit back and take it easy while she researched “How to treat a gunshot wound” on http://www.webmd.com. When her research proved to be unsatisfactory, Tagle drove her son to the emergency room — seven hours later.


Speedy Medicine

Dr. Robert Liston (1794-1847)
Dr. Robert Liston (1794-1847)
In the days before anesthesia, speed was at least as important as accuracy when doctors were performing surgery. The longer a patient had to endure the pain of being cut open and cut apart, the less likely he or she would survive the procedure.

With that in mind, surgeons trained to perform their ministrations as quickly as possible. One noted surgeon, Robert Liston (1794-1847), could amputate a limb in under a minute. Once he removed a 45 pound scrotal tumor in four minutes. Prior to the surgery, the owner had to carry it around in a wheelbarrow.

There is a fine line, however, between expediency and recklessness. Once, while operating on a patient’s leg, Dr. Liston, in his haste, cut off the fingers of his assistant. He also slashed through the clothing of a spectator. Not only did his patient die, but the assistant and the observer both developed infections from their injuries and died, resulting in the only known medical procedure with a 300% mortality rate.

On another occasion he amputated a man’s leg in a mere 2.5 minutes. His precision was a little off, though, so he also managed to remove his patient’s testicles.

One time he noted a pulsating red spot on a boy’s neck. Convinced that it was nothing more than an abscess, he pulled a knife from his pocket and lanced the spot right there, puncturing the carotid artery. The boy died within seconds, but if you want to see the artery, it is on display at the University College Hospital in London as Specimen No. 1256.

Liston made quite the sport of his speedy surgery. One of his surgical scenes was described thusly:

He was six foot two, and operated in a bottle-green coat with wellington boots. He sprung across the blood-stained boards upon his swooning, sweating, strapped-down patient like a duelist, calling, ‘Time me gentlemen, time me!’ to students craning with pocket watches from the iron-railinged galleries. Everyone swore that the first flash of his knife was followed so swiftly by the rasp of saw on bone that sight and sound seemed simultaneous. To free both hands, he would clasp the bloody knife between his teeth.

Liston’s legacy is preserved through the Liston Medal, awarded by the Council of University College for achievements and original observations in surgery.


What’s that Condition Called? It’s on the Tip of My Tongue

Geographic_tongue_cropped-e1376506859764About 3-5 percent of people have a harmless condition known as “geographic tongue.” It is caused by uneven distribution of papillae (short, fine, hair-like projections) over the surface of the tongue which often resemble islands on a map.


Take Some Mummy Powder, A Few Drops of Gladiator Blood, and Call Me in the Morning

snake oil

Mellified Man: Take one male volunteer aged 70 or 80, and bathe him and feed him with nothing but honey. Upon his death (usually within a month), seal him in a coffin filled with honey. Age for 100 years, then break the seals. The recipe for mellified man, a confection could allegedly treat broken and wounded limbs, appears in Chinese naturalist Li Shih-chen’s compendium, Chinese Materia Medica, published in 1597. Although Li heard rumors of mellified men being prepared in Arabia, he was not able to confirm the veracity of these reports, which is a shame since mellified man sounds like a much more palatable treat than plain old mummy powder.

Mummy Powder: From the 12th through the 17th century, any European apothecary worth his smelling salts kept a supply of mummy powder on hand. Mummy was the health food of the Middle Ages, guaranteed to cure everything from headaches to stomach ulcers, and plasters made from mummy powder were often slathered over tumors. Humans weren’t the only beings alleged to benefit from mummy; sick hawks were thought to benefit from their own grade of mummy powder. The demand for mummified far outweighed the supply; one couldn’t just walk up to a pyramid-shaped rock and start digging. One could, however, dig up some dead and desiccated bodies, grind them down, and sell them as “mummy powder.” It’s doubtful anyone ever noticed the difference.

The King’s Drops: This concoction, made from essence of powdered human skull, was made popular thanks to a royal endorsement. Charles II of England, who became very interested in chemistry during his exile in France, purchased the rights to the remedy for £6,000 from Jonathan Goddard, a famous surgeon and professor at London’s Gresham College. Formerly “Goddard’s Drops,” this panacea became known as the “King’s Drops,” and Charles II manufactured and sold it himself. While skull was a key ingredient in this draught supposed to promote health and vigor, the presence of opium probably helped its heady effects along. Plenty of other physicians developed skull-based medications, including Sir Kenelm Digby, who treated epileptics with the skull of a man who had died a violent death, and Thomas Willis, who thought a little chocolate mixed with human skull was the best cure for apoplexy.

Gladiator Blood and Liver: Between the first and the sixth century a single theological and several medical authors reported on the consumption of gladiator’s blood or liver to cure epileptics. The origins of the sacred properties of blood of a slain gladiator likely lie in Etruscan funeral rites. Although the influence of this religious background faded during the Roman Republic, the magical use of gladiators’ blood continued for centuries. After the prohibition of gladiatorial combat in about 400 AD, an executed individual (particularly beheaded ones) became the “legitimate” successor to the gladiator. Occasional indications in early modern textbooks on medicine as well as reports in the popular literature of the 19th and early 20th century document the existence of this ancient magical practice until modern times. Spontaneous recovery of some forms of epilepsy may be responsible for the illusion of therapeutic effectiveness and for the confirming statements by physicians who have commented on this cure.

Human Fat Ointments: For sufferers of joint and bone pain, muscle cramps, and nerve damage, salves of extruded human fat, often mixed with animal fat, blood, marrow, and beer, were recommended. In some regions of Europe, executed criminals and slain enemies combatants would be brought to processing labs, where their corpses would be boiled and their fat rendered. Hangmen in the Netherlands sometimes held the job of surgeon-executioner, tightening a man’s noose one day and selling ointments made from his corpse the next. An article in the October 1922 issue of the American Journal of Pharmacy claimed that “Hangman’s Salve,” also known as “Poor Sinner’s Fat,” was still in vogue among the Dutch to treat dislocations and lameness. However, given that the Netherlands had outlawed capital punishment 70 years earlier, it was unlikely that these “human salves” were the genuine article.

First Make People Laugh; Then Make Them Think

Ig Nobel Prize Winner Dr. Elena Bodnar demonstrates her invention (a brassiere that can quickly convert into a pair of protective face masks) assisted by Nobel laureates Wolfgang Ketterle (left), Orhan Pamuk, and Paul Krugman (right). Photo credit: Alexey Eliseev, 2009 Ig Nobel Ceremony
Ig Nobel Prize Winner Dr. Elena Bodnar demonstrates her invention (a brassiere that can quickly convert into a pair of protective face masks) assisted by Nobel laureates Wolfgang Ketterle (left), Orhan Pamuk, and Paul Krugman (right). Photo credit: Alexey Eliseev, 2009 Ig Nobel Ceremony

The “Ig Nobel Prizes” are a parody of the Nobel Prizes and are given each year for achievements that “first make people laugh, and then make them think”. They are presented by a group that includes genuine Nobel Laureates. Those who receive the award get the opportunity in a ceremony to explain their achievements. If the explanation goes too long or becomes too complicated, the voice of a little girl named Miss Sweety Poo will cry out, “Please stop! I’m bored” in a high pitched voice.

Recent Ig Nobel Laureates include:

  • In Public Health: Elena N. Bodnar, Raphael C. Lee, and Sandra Marijan of Chicago, Illinois, USA, for inventing a brassiere that, in an emergency, can be quickly converted into a pair of protective face masks, one for the brassiere wearer and one to be given to some needy bystander.
  • In Physics: Kiyoshi Mabuchi, Kensei Tanaka, Daichi Uchijima and Rina Sakai, of Japan, for measuring the amount of friction between a shoe and a banana skin, and between a banana skin and the floor, when a person steps on a banana skin that’s on the floor.
  • In Medicine: Brian Witcombe from Gloucester, for his research on “Sword Swallowing and Its Side Effects” and his findings that side effects include “sore throats”;
  • In Neuroscience: Jiangang Liu, Jun Li, Lu Feng, Ling Li, Jie Tian, and Kang Lee, from China and Canada, for trying to understand what happens in the brains of people who see the face of Jesus in a piece of toast.
  • In Linguistics: Juan Manuel Toro, Josp B Tobalon and Nuria Sebastian-Galles of the University of Barcelona, for showing that rats sometimes cannot tell the difference between a person speaking Japanese backwards and a person speaking Dutch backwards;
  • In Nutrition: Raquel Rubio, Anna Jofré, Belén Martín, Teresa Aymerich, and Margarita Garriga, of Spain, for their study titled “Characterization of Lactic Acid Bacteria Isolated from Infant Faeces as Potential Probiotic Starter Cultures for Fermented Sausages.”
  • In Peace: Air Force Wright Laboratory in Dayton, Ohio, for its research on a gay bomb which could cause enemy soldiers to become irresistible to one another and lose the will to fight. The Laboratory spent $7.5 million in the U.S. for this research.