Hoax Museum Blog: Health/Medicine

The Peanut Butter and Mayonnaise Panic of 1969

Were teenagers in the 1960s injecting themselves with peanut butter and mayonnaise as a way to get high?

Posted: Sun Nov 10, 2019.   Comments (1)

Does having a hairy chest prevent cirrhosis of the liver?

Here's a strange claim I recently ran across: if a man has a hairy chest he's less likely to develop cirrhosis of the liver. And by extension, if a man has a hairless chest, he's at greater risk of cirrhotic damage. Is there any truth to this claim? Or is it just a medical urban legend? more…

Posted: Mon May 23, 2016.   Comments (7)

Bogus Baldness Epidemics

Two cases in which the press warned the public about "epidemics of baldness," only to have those epidemics turn out to be much less than was initially reported. One case occurred in 1926, when the New York Times reported that 300 young men in the town of Kittanning, Pa. had been struck by sudden-onset baldness which was attributed to a "mysterious germ." more…

Posted: Fri Jun 05, 2015.   Comments (2)

Edward Mordake—A Mystery Solved

Edward Mordake is said to be an Englishman who was born with a second face on the back of his head — a face that eventually drove him mad. But was he a real person? I say no. I argue that he was actually the literary creation of the 19th-century poet Charles Lotin Hildreth. more…

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Stuck Together—can it really happen? — BBC News has delved into the mystery of "penis captivus," aka "cohesione in coitu," aka couples getting stuck together during sex. It tries to determine whether this can really happen, or whether such reports are just an urban myth.

According to legend, the gods Mars and Venus once got stuck together, as depicted in this 16th century woodcut by the artist Raphael Regius

Dr Aristomenis Exadaktylos of Switzerland, in a recent radio interview, declared it to be an urban myth. But other doctors aren't so sure. Dr John Dean, a "senior UK-based sexual physician," says that it's a rare phenomenon, but insists it can happen. Although he hastens to add that it's a problem that usually resolves itself within a few seconds as muscles relax.

However, most reports of the phenomenon are highly anecdotal and seem to be more myth than reality. For instance, the BBC offers a description of a 1372 case in which the problem supposedly lasted an entire day... a claim that stretches credibility:
In 1372, Geoffrey de La Tour-Landry related how a voluptuary named Pers Lenard "delt fleshely with a woman" on top of an altar of a church, and God "tyed hem faste togedre dat night". The following day the whole town saw the couple still entwined "fast like a dogge and biche togedre". Finally prayers were spoken and the couple's prolonged intercourse came to an end (although they were obliged to return to the church on three Sundays, strip naked and beat themselves in front of the congregation).

Accounts of the phenomenon also often mix in a moral message by suggesting that the problem only afflicts adulterers, because the fear of detection strengthens the force of the woman's muscular spasm. So "Recent media reports of penis captivus - in Kenya, Malawi, Zimbabwe and the Philippines - all concern adulterous couples." The notion that the problem is somehow a punishment for adultery is, of course, nonsense.

Finally, what would be the medical treatment for this problem? The 17th Century Dutch physician Isbrand van Diemerbroeck offered cold water as a cure:
"When I was a student at Leyden there was a young Bridegroom in that Town that being overwanton with his Bride had so hamper'd himself in her Privities, that he could not draw his Yard forth, till Delmehorst the Physician unty'd the knot by casting cold Water on the Part."

If cold water doesn't work, chloroform historically seems to be the next most popular solution. But I assume any muscle relaxant would remedy the situation.
Posted: Mon Feb 03, 2014.   Comments (1)

Squirrel AIDS is a hoax —

The Ocean County Health Department of New Jersey recently began receiving numerous phone calls and emails from people worried about the health risk posed by squirrels with AIDS. Many parents asked whether they should allow their children to play outside.

In response, the health department has posted a statement assuring the public that there is no such thing as 'Squirrel AIDS' or 'SQUAIDS'. Nor have there been any confirmed cases of illness transmitted to a human from a squirrel.

No cases of squirrel-to-human disease transmission? I immediately thought, 'What about rabies?' But some googling reveals that although squirrels can theoretically contract rabies, it's very rare for them to do so. This is mostly because squirrels are quick enough to avoid rabid animals. And if they failed to do so, they probably wouldn't survive the encounter long enough to become a carrier. Therefore, according to squirrelnutrition.com, a squirrel bite is "one of the few bites that does not trigger a rabies vaccine protocol" in emergency rooms.

The squirrel AIDS story originated from a site called The Lacey Reporter, which is trying hard to look like a legitimate local news site, but apparently is yet another of these now ubiquitous fake news sites.

Posted: Fri Jan 17, 2014.   Comments (0)

Marijuana overdoses in Colorado? — A story posted recently on the fake-news site DailyCurrant.com alleged that hospitals in Colorado were being overwhelmed by people suffering from marijuana poisoning. There were 37 people dead already!

The article quoted a Dr. Jack Shepard of St. Luke's Medical Center in Denver as saying, "It's complete chaos here. I've put five college students in body bags since breakfast and more are arriving every minute."

Enough people believed this story that St. Luke's Medical Center (which is a real hospital) felt compelled to issue a statement denying the report:

The name Dr. Jack Shepard is an allusion to the fictional doctor on the TV show Lost.

Also, marijuana has extremely low toxicity. There's no known case of a fatal marijuana overdose.

Update: Among those who apparently were taken in by the Daily Currant's article was Sweden's Justice Minister Beatrice Ask. She shared the article on her Facebook page, along with the comment, "Stupid and sad. My first submitted proposal in the youth wing was called 'Crush drugs!'. In this matter, I have not changed my judgment at all." 

She was subsequently heavily criticized for sharing the article (and apparently believing it). However, her press secretary told the Aftonbladet newspaper that she had been aware the article was satire. [thelocal.se]
Posted: Sat Jan 04, 2014.   Comments (2)

Acme Worm Bouncer — Great name. Lousy product. Acme Worm Bouncer was widely advertised in the 1920s and 30s, with guarantees that it would quickly free farm animals of "blood-sucking, profit-stealing parasites." But the stuff was actually mostly charcoal. Governmental authorities eventually filed suit against Acme Feeds, Inc., the company that made the stuff, charging them with "misleading representations regarding its efficacy." [via The Quack Doctor]

Misbranding of Acme Worm Bouncer. U.S. v. 5 Bags of Acme Worm Bouncer. Default decree of condemnation and destruction.
The labeling of this product bore false and misleading representations regarding its efficacy in the conditions indicated below.

On February 2, 1940, the United States attorney for the Western District of Wisconsin filed a libel against five bags of Acme Worm Bouncer at Monroe, Wis., alleging that the article had been shipped in interstate commerce on or about November 28, 1939, and January 9, 1940, by Acme Feeds, Inc. from Forest Park, Ill.; and charging that it was misbranded.

Analysis showed that the article consisted essentially of charcoal, sulfur, iron oxide, iron sulfate, salt, sodium sulfate, and a small proportion of Epsom salt.

The article was alleged to be misbranded in that the labeling bore representations that it was a "worm bouncer," that no drenching, dosing, handling, or starving were required, that it should be kept before pigs at all times to prevent reinfestation; that it was the only worm expeller on the market successfully fed in self-feeders; that chicks should be wormed when they are 8 weeks old, that 1 pound of the article should be used with every 100 pounds of Acme Growing Mash; that the birds should be kept confined in a separate house during treatment so that they could not pollute the yard with worm eggs and thus infest the other flocks; that if the birds are wormed too late the worms have a chance to develop and mature their eggs which would pass out and reinfest the birds before they recover from the first worming; that it should be used as a general worm treatment for laying flocks and if the flock is extremely wormy; that it would be efficacious for sheep and lambs that are in bad or unthrifty condition; that they should have free access to the article and that it would help to prevent scours and bloat; that a handful three times a day should be given to horses and colts until the worms were expelled and thereafter a handful should be given each day to keep the horses in good condition; and that it would be efficacious to remove the cause and would expel and prevent free intestinal worms and 90 percent of disease, which representations were false and misleading.

On March 12, 1940, no claimant having appeared, judgment of condemnation was entered and it was ordered that the product be destroyed.

Posted: Fri Dec 20, 2013.   Comments (0)

The Good Health Bug —
A case of satirical prophecy? On April 1, 1931, the Los Angeles Times ran an article on its front page declaring that health can "be caught." It explained that a German scientist, Dr. Eugene Lirpa, had discovered that good health was caused by a bacteria, "Bacillus sanitatis." People who lacked this bacteria grew ill. Therefore, it would be possible to make people healthy by infecting them with the "germ of health."

The article was an April Fool's Day hoax. In fact, I think it's the ONLY April Fool hoax the LA Times has ever perpetrated, because the major US newspapers (unlike their British counterparts) tend to view themselves as being somewhat above the vulgar tradition of April Foolery.

But fast forward to the present day. Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine recently published an article in Science suggesting that people who are of a healthy weight might be infected by a bacteria called Bacteroides. Obese people lack this bacteria. Therefore, infecting overweight people with this bug might help them lose the pounds.

Sounds to me a lot like the LA Times 1931 article. April Fool's Day once again anticipates reality.

Bacteria from slim people could help treat obesity, study finds

Bugs that lurk in the guts of slim people could be turned into radical new therapies to treat obesity, according to a new study.

The claim follows a series of experiments which found that the different populations of bacteria that live in lean and overweight people caused mice to lose or gain weight.

Posted: Thu Sep 05, 2013.   Comments (0)

128-year-old man tries to get health insurance — Kenya's Daily Nation newspaper reports that Mzee Julius Wanyondu is having trouble getting coverage under the National Hospital Insurance Fund. The reason is that he's 128 years old, having been born in 1884. However, the NHIF's computers will only accept birthdates later than 1890.

Remarkably, the article doesn't address the obvious question: Does this guy have any proof that he's really 128? He has some kind of ID card that displays 1884 as his birthdate. But what evidence did he present to get this card?

The article says that Mzee Wanyondu has a son who's 70. Based on that, I'd say it's likely that he's in his 90s. Or maybe slightly over 100. 128? No way.

Posted: Mon Aug 27, 2012.   Comments (6)

Can a bar of soap between your sheets ease muscle cramps? — Virginia news station WSLS 10 recently ran a 'myth buster' segment on whether putting a bar of soap between your sheets can ease nighttime leg and foot cramps. To my surprise, they concluded that, yes, a bar of soap does seem to help some people, even though there is "no scientific evidence" for why this would work.

Just to clarify, the claim is that merely having a bar of soap near your muscles at night can stop them from cramping. The brand of soap doesn't seem to matter much, though some people express individual preferences. (Irish Spring is a favorite.) The soap should also be in close proximity to the cramping muscle. Some people say that if cramping starts, they simply adjust their position so that the soap is making contact with the muscle, and the cramping and pain stops.

To say that there's "no scientific evidence" for this claim seems like an understatement. The idea sounds totally absurd. However, a quick google search reveals a large number of people who, despite initial skepticism, now swear by the method. Even Snopes lists the claim as 'undetermined'. So what could be going on here? Could soap actually have muscle-calming properties?

The most obvious theory is that the cramp relief is simply a placebo effect. People believe that it'll work, so it does. But it seems premature to dismiss the phenomenon in this way. Perhaps there is some strange bio-chemical effect at work.

Unfortunately, there's been very little scientific investigation of the soap phenomenon. The one relevant study I could find was published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. Dr. Yon Doo Ough (of Beloit Memorial Hospital in Wisconsin) and colleagues investigated whether soap-scented skin patches could ease menstrual cramps. Their study was directly inspired by soap's use in preventing nocturnal leg cramps. They theorized that it was the smell of the soap, not the soap itself, that was having the antispasmodic effect. So they applied soap-scented oil to skin patches and tested them on women with a history of severe menstrual cramps. The women reported that the patches did help.

The researchers might be on to something with their scent theory. A few years ago, over at Weird Universe, I posted about a study published in the journal Clinical Neurology and Neurosurgery that looked at whether stinky shoe smell could be an effective treatment for epilepsy. For centuries, it's been part of folk medical practice in India to arrest epileptic seizures by forcing the person having the seizure to smell stinky shoes. The researchers concluded, to their surprise, that the technique worked. They wrote, "strong olfaction applied in the form of 'shoe-smell' did definitely play a suppressive role and thus exerted an inhibitory influence on epilepsy."

If a strong smell can suppress an epileptic seizure, perhaps it can also suppress the perception of pain and cramps. The brain works in mysterious ways. It would be interesting to test whether sleeping with a stinky shoe also eases cramps. In fact, will any strong smell have the same effect?

So until a better theory comes along, I'm willing to accept the possibility that soap between the sheets might ease cramps — perhaps because the smell somehow tricks the brain into ignoring the pain and suppressing the cramping response. Though the mystery is why applying the soap directly to the muscle seems to help. Would it be equally efficacious to put the soap directly to your nose?

As the WSLS myth-buster segment pointed out, the technique is cheap and harmless. So if you suffer from nocturnal leg cramps, I guess it's worth a try. There's nothing to lose. Though, inevitably, there are people trying to make a buck off this home remedy. Last year, one guy filed a patent for a pain-relief "soap cushion" (depicted below) that has compartments into which pieces of hard soap can be inserted. Is that really patentable?

Posted: Tue Aug 21, 2012.   Comments (9)

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