A masseur at an American Red Cross Military Hospital, Neuilly, France, 1918.
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Quacks, Alternative Medicine, and the U.S. Army in the First World War

During WWI, the Surgeon General received numerous pitches for miraculous cures for sick and wounded American soldiers.
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Between 1917 and the early 1920s, the Surgeon General received dozens of letters offering medicine to treat a range of maladies. Chelius Pixley from Chicago offered one of many “anti-seasick” remedies. W.H. Whitmore argued that his Persian Ointment to treat skin irritation was small enough even to fit “in the knapsack of each soldier.” Frederick Forbush of Boston allegedly had a cure for shell shock.

Still others offered treatments ranging from rheumatic vapors and herbal remedies for syphilis to “pure food” therapy for the “cure” of tuberculosis. Mrs. Maude Kellsy of Iowa wrote that she “discovered a cure for rheumatism and would like to help cure our boys who have given their health for our protection.” And Will Atkinson offered his cure for syphilitic rheumatism not for money but to “serve my country.”

Some of the medicinal appeals were slightly more comical. In May 1919, a “Mr. Woods” contacted the Surgeon General, writing, “Two weeks ago the spirit of Martin Luther … asked me to send you this writting [sic] I had on shell-shock for about two years.” He argued that if the Surgeon General didn’t accept it he may send it to help German veterans. The remedy consisted of a regimen of opium, best inhaled near a windowsill “so that fumes are blowed [sic] back to patients.” After this the patients should boil shellfish for thirty minutes, let the water cool, and then drink a half wine glass full, three times a day.

Corporal Alberto Russo also appealed to the department with his “sure cure” for rheumatism: collecting the “blood of the ordinary water turtle” by cutting the main vessel of the turtle and letting the blood fall on the part affected, then wrapping it with flannel. He claimed to have tried this method on a friend who was able to “discard his crutches and return to his work.”

The Army Medical Department had procedures for the many offers they received. While many writers sought to use the veteran population as a testing ground for their methods, it didn’t come that easy. Inventors frequently sent inquiries with samples, which were typically disregarded outright. The Army Medical Department responded that military doctors already had sufficient treatments for whichever ailment they were writing about.
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