In 1853 the Queen’s personal physician, Dr. John Snow dripped an ounce of chloroform on a handkerchief which was then held next to the royal mouth as Prince Leopold was delivered. Her Majesty was very happy with the experience and endorsed the use of chloroform. Many women followed suit, sometimes even naming their newborn children “Anesthesia.”
“Is it true that putting a piece of garlic in the rectum at night can cleanse the body?”
And with that single question posed by an audience member back in 1975, my chemical focus shifted to food and nutrition. The question came after one of my first public talks on chemistry at a local library, where I had described the role chemistry plays in our daily lives, mostly using dyes, drugs, plastics and cosmetics as examples.
I was sort of taken aback by the question, but managed to stammer something like “where did you hear that?”
Back came the answer, “from Panic in the Pantry.” After mentioning that my only experience with garlic had been with rubbing it on toast with some very satisfying results to the palate, I promised to check out the reference.
It wasn’t hard to track down Panic in the Pantry in a local bookstore. The title had suggested some sort of attack on our food system, but this turned out not to be the case. At least not in the way I had thought. Flipping through the book I came across terms like “chemophobia,” “carcinogen,” “additives,” “chemical-free” and “health foods.” I was intrigued, especially on noting that the book had had been written by Frederick Stare, a physician with a previous degree in chemistry who had founded the Department of Nutrition at Harvard’s School of Public Health, and co-author Elizabeth Whelan. Within a day I had read Panic in the Pantry from cover to cover and was so captivated that I dove into the turbid waters of nutrition and food chemistry with great enthusiasm. Ever since then, I have been trying to keep my head above water, buffeted by the growing waves of information and misinformation.
Panic in the Pantry focused on what the authors believed were unrealistic worries about our food supply, vigorously attacking the popular lay notion that “if you can’t pronounce it, it must be harmful.” Yes, that daft message was around long before the Food Babe made it her anthem. In truth, the risks and benefits of a chemical are a consequence of its molecular structure, and are determined by appropriate studies, not by the number of syllables in its name. Stare and Whelan also challenged the “Delaney Clause,” a piece of U.S. legislation stating that no additive shall be deemed safe if it has been shown to cause cancer in any species upon any type of exposure. They pointed at studies that showed very different effects of chemicals in rodents and humans and maintained that it was unrealistic to condemn additives if exposure was not taken into account. “Too much sun can cause skin cancer, but does that mean we should stay indoors all the time?” they asked.
What about the curious case of the clove of garlic in the rectum? An excellent example of a misinterpretation of information, something that I have seen much too often. In a discussion of food faddism through the ages, the authors introduced the antics of one Adolphus Hohensee, who had forged a career as a “health food” advocate after his real estate business had landed him in jail for mail fraud. The dietary guru told his audiences that the sex act should last an hour, and if they did not measure up to this level of sexual adequacy it was because they had a diet laden with additives.
Hohensee’s answer to the chemical onslaught was a clove of garlic in the rectum at night, with proof of its efficacy being the scent of garlic on the breath in the morning. Obviously, the garlic had worked its way from bottom to top, cleansing everything in-between. Far from promoting this regimen, Stare and Whelan had used it to highlight the extent of nutritional quackery.
I found most of the arguments in Panic in the Pantry highly palatable, but there was a discussion of one chemical that left a somewhat bitter taste. That chemical was sugar. I had been quite taken by Pure, White and Deadly, a 1972 book by British physiologist John Yudkin, who made a compelling case linking sugar to heart disease, cavities, diabetes, obesity and possibly some cancers. Stare dismissed sugar as a culprit, implicating saturated fats as the cause of coronary disease. That to me seemed not to meet the standard of evidence that was applied to other issues in Panic in the Pantry.
As it turns out, there was a reason for Stare’s dismissal of sugar as a health problem. In 1965, the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF), the industry’s trade association, asked Stare to sit on its advisory board because of his expertise in the dietary causes of heart disease. The sugar industry was extremely worried about Yudkin’s growing influence and decided to embark on a major program to take the focus off sugar and direct it toward fats. Stare’s defence of sugar as a quick energy food that should be put in coffee or tea several times a day and calling Coca Cola a healthy between meals snack was welcomed by the industry.
As we have now learned from historical documents brought to light in a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the SRF paid members of Stare’s department to carry out a literature review, overseen by Stare, designed to point a finger at fats while expressing skepticism about sugar’s supposed criminality. That review was published in the New England Journal of Medicine without any disclosure of sugar industry funding and successfully steered readers away from associating sugar with heart disease. While Stare, who died in 2002, was correct about many aspects of unfounded chemophobia, his reputation has now been tarnished by the undeclared payments received by his department from the sugar industry.
Sugar, as we now know, is not as innocent as Stare had claimed. But at least he never did suggest garlic in the rectum to cleanse toxins. As far as I know, neither has the Food Babe.
Dr. Joe Schwarcz PhD
The marble and granite statue in the Boston Common depicts a physician in medieval clothing holding a cloth next to the face of a man who seems to have passed out. An inscription on the base of the statue reads “To commemorate that the inhaling of ether causes insensibility to pain, first proved to the world at the Mass. General Hospital in Boston, October A.D. 1846.” No names are mentioned.
It was on Oct. 16, 1846, that dentist William Morton ushered in the era of surgical anesthesia by putting printer Gilbert Abbot to sleep with fumes of ether from an inhaler he had devised. Surgeon John Collins Warren then proceeded to remove a tumour from the patient’s neck without any of the usual screaming or thrashing about.
Warren looked up at the doctors who had witnessed the event in the surgical theatre that would become known as the “ether dome” and proclaimed, “Gentlemen, this is no humbug.”
That was in reference to a failed attempt by another dentist, Horace Wells, to demonstrate anesthesia with nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, at the same hospital. In that case, Wells hadn’t waited long enough for the nitrous oxide to take effect and the patient howled in pain as Wells attempted to extract a tooth. He exited in disgrace to the cries of “humbug.”
Although Morton gets credit for the first organized demonstration of ether anesthesia, he certainly was not the first to experiment with the chemical. The sleep-inducing effect of ether was first recorded 300 years earlier, when famed Swiss alchemist, philosopher and physician Paracelsus noted that its vapours would induce a state of unresponsiveness in chickens. Ether does not occur in nature, so where did Paracelsus get it?
In 1540, German physician and botanist Valerius Cordus discovered that heating alcohol with sulphuric acid, then known as oil of vitriol, yielded a new highly flammable substance with a characteristic smell. Vitriol was the archaic name for compounds that today are termed “sulphates.”
Cordus discovered that heating a solution of green vitriol, or iron (II) sulphate, a naturally occurring mineral, yielded “oil of vitriol.” Then in the 17th century, German-Dutch chemist Johann Glauber found that burning sulphur with saltpetre (potassium nitrate) produced sulphuric acid.
Potassium nitrate decomposes to yield the oxygen needed to convert sulphur to sulphur trioxide, which dissolves in water to produce sulphuric acid. In the 19th century, potassium nitrate was replaced by vanadium pentoxide, which acted as a catalyst allowing for easier production of sulphur trioxide. This was the method used to produce the sulphuric acid needed for the synthesis of ether in the 1800s.
Before ether’s triumphant performance in 1846 at Massachusetts General, it had developed a reputation as a recreational substance. Middle-class partygoers and medical students both in Europe and America frolicked under the influence of ether. More curiously, drinking ether was common in Europe and was particularly popular in Ireland, where the Catholic Church promoted abstinence from alcohol and asked people to pledge not to drink alcohol. Drinking ether was a way to get around the pledge. Ether was sold in pubs and shops until the 1890s, when it was classified as a poison.
Dr. Crawford Long had taken part in ether frolics as a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania, and when he took over a rural medical practice in Georgia in 1841, he recalled that ether frolickers sometimes developed bumps and bruises of which they seemed to be oblivious.
Could ether be used to relieve pain, he now wondered? The answer came when he delivered his wife’s second baby with the aid of ether anesthesia. Long went on to perform a painless dental extraction, and in 1842 used an ether-soaked towel to put James Venable to sleep before proceeding to excise two tumours from his neck. But Long was not an academic, was not interested in publishing, nor did he crave fame or fortune.
It was two years after William Morton’s celebrated demonstration that Long documented his efforts in the Southern Medical and Surgical Journal in a paper titled “An account of the first use of Sulphuric Ether by Inhalation as an Anaesthetic in Surgical Operations.”
He described a number of cases, including the amputation of two fingers of a boy who was etherized during one procedure and not the other. Long reported that the patient suffered terribly without ether but was insensible with it. The reason he had waited to publish, he said, was the need to overcome criticism by local colleagues, who had suggested that the ether effect was just an example of mesmerism, which at the time was promoted as a pain-reduction method.
With his publication, Long added his name to the list of people claiming to have been the inventors of ether anesthesia. There was William Morton, of course, and Charles Jackson, a physician who had given up medicine to establish a private laboratory for analytical chemistry, where he also taught students, including Morton, who had come to expand his scientific knowledge.
Jackson claimed that he had introduced Morton to ether anesthesia, and the two got involved in a rancorous battle for years. There was also a Berkshire Medical College student, William E. Clarke, who claimed he had first used ether to put patients to sleep.
It was because of the controversy that the Boston monument does not bear the name of any of the claimants. But it does bear a biblical quote from Isaiah: “This also cometh forth from the Lord of Hosts which is wonderful and excellent in working,” addressing the worry people had that relief of pain was somehow interfering with God’s will.
The quote suggests that medical intervention is itself a gift from God and is backed up by a relief on the statue depicting a woman who represents Science Triumphant sitting atop a throne of test tubes, burners and distillers, with a Madonna and Child looking on with approval. There is also a Civil War scene on the side of the monument with a Union field surgeon standing ready to amputate a wounded soldier’s leg. The soldier sleeps peacefully. Thanks to ether, he would feel no pain.
Dr. Joe Schwarcz