A cure all cures nothing. Never heard that before? It's not wrong.

We have always tried to cure what ails us. Tinctures, oils, balms, and more meant to "cure all that ails you". We don't know about many before written history, but the idea that humans have always tried to fix their aching joints, fevers, and all the other things with plants, animal parts, and more is fascinating.

Let's start at the beginning:


The panacea /pænəˈsiːə/, named after the Greek goddess of universal remedy Panacea, is any supposed remedy that is claimed (for example) to cure all diseases and prolong life indefinitely. It was in the past sought by alchemists in connection with the elixir of life and the philosopher's stone, a mythical substance which would enable the transmutation of common metals into gold.

Episode: File 0018: Corrupted Paralysis Cure-Alls

Release Date: March 5th 2021

Researched and presented by Halli

Ancient Greek and Roman scholars described various kinds of plants that were called panacea or panaces, such as Opopanax sp., Centaurea sp., Levisticum officinale, Achillea millefolium and Echinophora tenuifolia.

The Cahuilla people of the Colorado Desert region of California used the red sap of the elephant tree (Bursera microphylla) as a panacea

The Latin genus name of ginseng is Panax, (or "panacea") reflecting Linnean understanding that traditional Chinese medicine used ginseng widely as a cure-all.

A panacea (or panaceum) is also a literary term to represent any solution to solve all problems related to a particular issue.

The term "panacea" is used in a negative way to describe the overuse of any one solution to solve many different problems, especially in medicine. The word has acquired connotations of snake-oil and quackery. Panacea can be used to refer to a "cure-all."


We have always tried to cure our aches with things that were supposed to fix everything. It's led to some...interesting consequences. Like drug regulation. Let's talk about probably the father of modern drug regulation, Mithridates VI.

During his reign (120 to 63 B.C.E.), this king of Pontus (located on the southern edge of the Black Sea) worked as a toxicologist in between waging wars on Rome. His efforts to create a universal antidote helped pave the way for modern drug regulation.

Hellenistic monarchs frequently used poison to alter the political landscape around them, whether to kill themselves or rivals.

Most famously, Cleopatra VII of Egypt killed herself by snakebite in 30 B.C.E. And Mithridates's contemporary Ariarathes VI, the king of Cappadocia (south of Pontus), came to the throne after his five elder brothers were poisoned, likely by their own mother.

Mithridates first learned about poisons at a young age.

His father, Mithridates V, was poisoned, possibly at his mother's behest, as Adrienne Mayor, Mithridates VI's biographer, suggested in her book The Poison King. Afraid he'd be next, the young Mithridates began to study their properties.

The Roman natural historian Pliny the Elder called him:

"With his brilliant intellect and wide interests ... an especially diligent student of medicine, [who] collected detailed knowledge from all his subjects."

Once he became king, Mithridates consulted physicians, scientists, and shamans in the hopes of creating a foolproof remedy to toxins.

Mithridates cultivated unique poisons in his laboratories and gardens, and, some historians say, may have even tested them on condemned criminals, in the interest of finding ways to counteract them.

The most famous of Mithridates's potions was later named mithridatium.

Taken daily as an electuary (a pill made of a paste, using honey as a binding agent), mithridatium combined beneficial pharmaka, or drugs and medicines, with poisons.

According to Pliny: 

"By his unaided efforts he thought out the plan of drinking poison daily, after first taking remedies, in order that sheer custom might render it harmless."

This way, Mithridates thought to both improve his health and immunize himself simultaneously. Surviving recipes of mithridatium list dozens of ingredients, ranging from the expected-like opium and myrrh- to the bizarre, like castoreum, a substance found in beaver testicles.

Mithridates took his concoction daily for decades. In 63 B.C.E., when the Romans were about to capture him, Mithridates tried to commit suicide by poison. But, according to ancient chroniclers like Appian, the daily dosing worked so well that he didn't die. Instead, in this version of the story, Mithridates made one of his soldiers, a Gaul named Bituitus, gut him.

After Mithridates's death, the Romans took up his medical mantle.

 "Poisoning was already becoming widespread in Rome by the end of the Republic," Mayor wrote in an email. This made the Romans "very keen to acquire ... [this] universal antidote." They "claimed to possess his original recipe and to improve upon it," she said.

So what happened next?

A Capriccio of Classical Ruins by Giovanni Paolo Panini
A Capriccio of Classical Ruins by Giovanni Paolo Panini

Andromachus, the personal physician to Emperor Nero, created a version called theriac, adding more opium and some viper flesh, thinking that the bodies of venomous animals must contain antidotes. Of this addition, Galen marveled: 

"There is nothing for you to wonder at in the fact that the same wild beasts can both kill and heal." 

Galen himself considered theriac a remedy for all ailments-not just poison-and popularized it by prescribing it to the emperor.

When it came to medicines, Romans held that more expensive and "exotic" ingredients were higher quality and more effective. (Plus, medicine-makers would earn more money selling a more expensive remedy).

"Physicians were well aware of the attraction that such an expensive drug could have on a wealthy clientele," the pharmacological historian Laurence Totelin wrote in an e-mail. To impress their clients, they competed to introduce as many spices and other rare products in their recipes as possible. "Little by little, one expensive ingredient in a recipe ceased to be sufficient, and more and more expensive ingredients were put together, leading to the creation of expensive antidotes such as mithridatium or theriac," Totelin added.

Over the next few centuries, recipes for universal antidotes proliferated worldwide.

In the eighth century, theriacs appeared in Islamic medical texts as poison-repellants and cure-alls. While some theriacs survived in European writings, many re-entered Western society as old Greek and Roman texts, preserved by Islamic scholars, were re-introduced into the Mediterranean again.

They became popular in medieval Europe to combat the Black Plague, and the invention of the printing press facilitated the spreading of recipes. There was no internationally universal recipe-no rules at all, really, for what could and couldn't be called a theriac.

Throughout the Renaissance and early industrial eras, major centers of trade from London to Cairo had flourishing antidote industries.

Often, the jars the remedies came in were as expensive and ornate as what was inside them. Venice's 60-ingredient theriac (dubbed "Venetian treacle" by the English) became the most famous, but pharmacies across the world popularized different versions.

Theriac was perennially popular because it was thought to cure every ailment, no longer just poison. For poorer apothecaries, producing cheap versions of expensive remedies was good money. If they couldn't afford expensive ingredients, they might pass off a cheaper medicine as a high-end one. If theriac and mithridatium didn't work, people thought, the pharmacists must have been at fault. They must have used poor ingredients or prepared the mixtures incorrectly

Paving the way for regulation

In order to prevent apothecaries from passing off cheap ingredients as expensive ones and poor-quality theriacs (that didn't adhere to the "official" recipes put forth by medical authorities), as the real thing, city authorities and unions began to oversee production, forming the foundation of modern drug regulation.

Legal penalties for apothecaries improperly preparing remedies and peddling them to the public began to appear during the Renaissance.

In 1397 in Sicily, a key point of cultural exchange between the East and the West, King Martin II appointed his personal physician to head a committee called the Protomedicato to supervise all things medical, from surgery to pharmacology. Thus, through a direct representative, the monarch could oversee the kingdom's flourishing medical trade and legislate how apothecaries made their medicines. This royal regulation, perhaps inspired by existing physicians' and apothecaries' guilds, caught on across Europe, expanding a ruler's power even further.

In 1540, Henry VIII permitted his Royal College of Physicians to assign four of its members to be official inspectors of London apothecaries' remedies. These men were the king's secret medical police, examining ingredients and pharmacological wares. If the products were judged to be:

"Defective, corrupted, and not meet nor convenient to be ministered in any medicines for the health of man's body," 

according to the Pharmacy Wares, Drugs, and Stuffs Act, ministers had the right to destroy these items (and an apothecary's livelihood) as they saw fit.

If apothecaries refused to allow inspectors into their shops or homes, they would be fined, as would negligent inspectors. Henry's daughter Mary I improved upon this law in an Act of 1553 to ensure the inspectors examined wares in full view of the apothecaries and increased the penalty for disobedient apothecaries.

With official eyes on them, apothecaries became subject to laws standardizing how their bestselling remedies, like theriac, were produced. If they used unsanctioned recipes, or continued to make theriac after failing an inspection, there'd be hell to pay.

A "black market" for theriac existed alongside the official one; with salesmen hawking their own remedies' virtues, it was hard for patients to be sure they were consuming legitimate medicine.

To make sure everyone was making medicines properly, doctors began to circulate pharmacopeias-manuals outlining official drug preparation.

The first modern formulary for apothecaries came from Florence's physicians' guild in 1498; other cities across Europe soon followed suit. In 1618, the official formula for mithridatium was published in The London Pharmacopeia, and its production flourished among many apothecaries.

As scientific methods and experimentation flourished, so did skepticism about cure-alls. The 17th-century French doctor Guy Patin dismissed such "exotic" remedies in favor of simpler, proven ones that were "neither rare nor expensive." Such doctors remained in the minority until the 18th century, when the trend of polypharmacy (taking multiple drugs-or drugs with many ingredients-at the same time) began to decline because of a growing recognition of drug interaction. Medicines whose benefits were imbued with superstitions also grew less popular, in favor of those proven scientifically effective

From cure-alls to patent medicines

Patent medicines originally referred to medications whose ingredients had been granted government protection for exclusivity. In actuality, the recipes of most 19th century patent medicines were not officially patented. Most producers (often small family operations) used ingredients quite similar to their competitors-vegetable extracts laced with ample doses of alcohol.

Proprietary, or "quack" medicines could be deadly, since there was no regulation on their ingredients. They were medicines with questionable effectiveness whose contents were usually kept secret

Originating in England as proprietary medicines manufactured under grants, or "patents of royal favor," to those who provided medicine to the Royal Family, these medicines were exported to America in the 18th century. Daffy's Elixir Salutis for "colic and griping," Dr. Bateman's Pectoral Drops, and John Hooper's Female Pills were some of the first English patent medicines to arrive in North America with the first settlers.

The medicines were sold by postmasters, goldsmiths, grocers, tailors and other local merchants.

By the middle of the 19th century the manufacture of similar products had become a major industry in America. Often high in alcoholic content, these remedies were very popular with those who found this ingredient to be therapeutic.

Many concoctions were fortified with morphine, opium, or cocaine. Sadly, many of these concoctions were advertised for infants and children. Parents seeking relief for their babies from colic or fussiness often administered these remedies with tragic results.

Remedies were available for almost any ailment. These remedies were openly sold to the public and claimed to cure or prevent nearly every ailment known to man, including venereal diseases, tuberculosis, colic in infants, indigestion or dyspepsia, and even cancer. "Female complaints" were often the target of such remedies, offering hope for women to find relief from monthly discomforts.

With strong support from President Theodore Roosevelt, a Pure Food and Drug Act was passed by Congress in 1906. It paved the way for public health action against unlabeled or unsafe ingredients, misleading advertising, the practice of quackery, and similar rackets.

Specific examples of horrifying "cures"

  • During a 1665 plague outbreak in London, schoolchildren were told to smoke cigarettes, which at the time were thought to be disinfectants. In addition, "tobacco smoke enemas"-the source of a common idiom about blowing smoke-were developed as a sort of 18th-century version of CPR by members of The Institution for Affording Immediate Relief to Persons Apparently Dead from Drowning. They would drag the victim out of the River Thames, strip him or her down, and use an enema to literally blow smoke into the person, either manually or with bellows. (Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation was invented in the '50s.)
  • The phrase "you are what you eat" can apply to this school of thought. Ancient Romans clamored for gladiator blood for strength and vitality, but it was also thought to be a cure for epilepsy. That rationale appeared to be maintained for centuries, based on Englishman Edward Browne's 1668 observation that people attended executions to collect the blood of the victims. 
  • In the early 1600s, one German physician's suggested cure for a range of conditions was making a jerky of sorts out of the corpses of 24-year-old redheads, chopping up their bodies and mashing the bits in wine, myrrh and aloe, before dry-curing them

Salves and Ointments, Liniments and Balms; and some good consequences for a change

There were also topical preparations were generally used to treat common skin, scalp, and hair problems and can be seen as precursors to the over-the-counter skin care and first-aid ointments in use today. Indeed, some brands of topical preparations produced during the late 1800s, such as Mentholatum, Bag Balm, and White Cloverine, remain available today.

Robert Chesebrough patented petroleum jelly under the name Vaseline in 1872, and many of these salves have a base of petrolatum, or petroleum jelly.

Salves were packaged in tins, while liniments were generally bottled. Liniments were liquids that often had a high alcohol content, which suspended oils of mint or pepper. The oils acted as a "counterirritant"-they stimulated mild irritation of the skin with the aim of lessening pain or inflammation in other areas of the body.

Salves and liniments addressed aliments that often brought with them aesthetic concerns. Beauty standards of nineteenth and early twentieth century America placed a high priority on clear skin and full, thick hair. 

People used these salves and liniments to remedy complexion issues such as pimples and blackheads, as well as scalp conditions, such as ringworm and mange, that cause patchy hair loss. These products served the whole family, and provided both health and beauty help for one price. But they were especially appealing to women who were eager to avoid purchasing specifically cosmetic preparations. At this time, the use of cosmetic preparations was often socially unacceptable.

Older salves, ointments, and liniments were sometimes marketed as for "man or beast." This tactic was especially applicable for products that claimed to cure or soothe minor skin irritations such as cuts, scrapes, burns, insect bites, bruises, chafing, and dry cracked skin that are common to humans and their pets and livestock. Humans and their animals shared some skin ailments because they shared a common environment and were often in physical contact with one another. 

For example, both the rider and the horse may be tormented by saddle-chafed skin. In addition, fungal infections such as ringworm and parasitic infections such as mange could be easily passed between the family dog and children. Although the packaging for these products included separate directions for application to domestic animals versus humans, the healing action described is basically the same.

In the early 1900s, when people walked into the spa in Joachimsthal, Czech Republic, they immediately breathed in irradiated air circulating in the lobby. The source of the radiation was a hot spring that emanated radon. Patients soaked in irradiated water and inhaled radon directly through tubes. A few early studies had claimed that radium placed near tumors could shrink the tumors, so doctors at the time thought more was better. 

"It's like the difference between treating something with a bomb and treating something with a scalpel," says Kang.

Radon exposure is now known to be a leading cause of lung cancer. The invention of the Geiger counter in 1928 would help physicians better measure doses of the chemical, paving the way for medical breakthroughs that would enable radiation to be used for cancer treatments today.

Key Take-Aways

Cure-alls cure nothing.

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