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The Origins of “Snake Oil” in Nineteenth-Century American Medical Culture

The Origins of “Snake Oil” in Nineteenth-Century American Medical Culture

K. A. Woytonik, Ph.D. Candidate, University of New Hampshire

In today’s vocabular practice “snake oil” connotes the deceitful practice of alleging a substance is good for one’s health, when at best it does nothing and at worst may actually injure.  The “snake oil salesman” is a slippery figure, preying on people’s desire for health for their own profit.  But where did these terms come from, and how did they evolve to the present meaning?  The story of snake oil is the process of how Americans came to decide what medicine was—and what medicine was not. Read More.

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