Spoiler... It's medicine!
Many folks have legitimate concerns over the use of animal products in medicine but this isn't an article trying to convince anyone to use snake as medicine, rather it's just to get some stuff straight about why we even use the term "snake oil" in the first place.
In acupuncture school, when I first learned that snake was in the materia medica (body of medicinal substances), I was both intrigued and dismayed. Intrigued that snake oil, was in fact medicine, but dismayed that in the U.S. the term "snake oil" is synonymous with fake medicine. I assumed the term had developed out of prejudice and ignorance, but the story many historians now tell is a little more nuanced.
History of Use in China
Certain types of snake, prepared correctly, are an effective medicinal substance that have been utilized in Chinese Medicine for ~2,000 years. Snake as a medicinal substance first appears in the "Divine Husbandman's Classic of the Materia Medica" compiled in the Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220 AD) and is still used in China today, as both medicine and food. Various species of specific snake are used to treat skin conditions, joint and muscle pain (arthritis, rheumatism), numbness, spasms, tremors, and stroke recovery.
Snake Medicine on the Western Frontier
In the mid to late 1800s, thousands of men constructed the Transcontinental Railroad system. The impact of the railroad system on U.S. culture and economy can not be overstated. The most difficult and dangerous section, that many contemporary critics wrote off as impossible, was constructed by a workforce comprised mostly of Chinese workers. It was grueling work in treacherous conditions (which included unequal pay and racism) and it is believed that anywhere from 1 to 4 thousand men lost their lives (in both the U.S. and Canada). Laying down 10 miles of railroad in 12 hours is an unbelievable feat, one that over time, obviously resulted in many aches, pains, and injuries. Because of the ubiquitous use of snake for pain in China, it is likely many Chinese workers were prepared with, or had access to, topical snake liniments and, as knowledge and desire for effective pain management will do, demand for it grew. While there was already a large Chinese population in the U.S., including Chinese Medicine doctors, the importance and fame of the railroad project, in addition to some shady white settlers, made this particular Chinese remedy shoot into stardom.
The first Chinese railroad workers (a team of 21 men) arrived in the United States in 1864; ultimately, it’s estimated that some 20,000 Chinese laborers participated in the project, making up the majority of the workforce. Most came from China’s southern Guangdong province, fleeing their country’s Opium Wars. They were joined in the effort by African Americans, Irishmen and smaller numbers of Native Americans and Mormons (now referred to as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). (History.com)
The 19th century, especially the mid to late 1800's, was an explosive time in both medicine and communication. Scientific and medical advancements were meeting traditional healing knowledge and practices and news publications doubled in number within a few years, due to the development of the steam powered press. "Legitimate" doctors were still often mistrusted, as were many successful alternative practitioners. On the other hand, some white settlers, both licensed doctors and folk healers, over-promised on their ability to heal numerous ailments. Of the traveling "medicine men", many claimed Native or part Native heritage, or to be recipients of special knowledge from Native tribes, having miraculous healing abilities and incredible cures. When word of the effectiveness of Chinese snake liniments on pain began to spread, it was an obvious choice for these unscrupulous salesmen. Without knowledge of which species of snake to use (or without using any snake product at all) they sold the by now famous pain cure to customers in need of relief, most likely to no therapeutic effect. *See the story of Clark Stanley
Snake Oil is Medicine
It is now understood that, at least part of what makes these snakes an effective treatment of pain conditions is the presence of eicosapentaenic acid (EPA; related to omega-3 fatty acid, also present in salmon) and while research is still being done to understand its affects better, EPA is generally understood to have anti-inflammatory effects.
The Chinese water snake (Enhydris chinensis) is the richest known source of EPA, the starting material the body uses to make the series 3 prostaglandins. These prostaglandins are the biochemical messengers which control some aspects of inflammation, rather like aspirin which also affects the prostaglandin system. Like essential fatty acids, EPA can be absorbed through the skin. Salmon oil, the next best source, contains 18% EPA. Rattlesnake oil contains 8.5% EPA. *Bionity article
Again, this isn't an argument to get you to use snake oil. It is simply to acknowledge that snake as medicine, along with the rest of Chinese medicine, is valid and valuable, and has been historically and unfairly characterized as fake or "quack" medicine, reflecting the xenophobia of dominant culture. Chinese doctors from previous centuries were, indeed, scientists - but instead of labs and microscopes, they relied on empirical evidence, trial and error, and their own astute observations as well as those that came before them. To this day, Chinese herbal medicine (including snake) is being studied for its efficacy and shows great effect on illness and injury.
Considering this history, rather than a fake medicine, the term "snake oil" may better be used to describe the appropriation of knowledge of an Indigenous or marginalized group by a colonial population. We may as well call syringes, sun screen, and pain relievers as well as inoculation against smallpox snake oil too. Snark aside, the term may not be going away, but the next time you hear it, remember that snake oil IS medicine and there is always more to the story.
Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project (long video)
"Chinese Medicine in Post-Frontier America" (downloadable PDF)
"Ghosts of Gold Mountain" (book by Gordon Chang)
"A History of the Snake Oil Salesmen" (article)
"Maintenance Phase" (podcast; search "Snake Oil")
A (Very) Simplified Timeline for the More Curious..The mid to late 1880s were a volatile time in the U.S. The Mexican-American and Civil Wars, abolition, white settler attack & genocide of the Indigenous People and their self-defense, discovery of gold (and everyone wanted a piece), and rapid technological and medical developments were all afoot. In some ways, it was similar to today with communication spreading faster than ever, rapid techno/scientific developments and a divided working class. Click > arrow to view timeline.