Select Page

Health and wellness are always a concern, especially lately with news of the novel corona virus coming at us from all sides.  There are ways to help your body stay in peak condition. Perk up your colon with a coffee enema, balance your energies into the ideal frequency with special stickers made from the same materials used by NASA, or keep your lady parts tip-top by giving them a good steam-cleaning — be sure to remove your jade egg first.  If you’re really serious about your health, you can spend the equivalent of 800 hours of minimum wage for a weekend of smoothies, workshops, and hoping to get a glimpse of the celebrity host, who’s already left. No refunds. My name…


Today’s topic was voted on by our supporters at url and a hearty welcome to our newest members Crispy Platypus, Ruthanne, Kate, Taylor, Jennifer, and our super-RTer, Eric, who joined during our recent special offer.  According to the Global Wellness Institute, the global health and wellness industry is now worth $4.2 trillion. It’s hip, it’s trendy, it’s thousands of years old. The use of the hot springs goes back to prehistory.  Imagine how amazing it must have been to find a stream or a pool of water that was hot without having to haul it back to camp in a bowl that took days to make, only to find that the fire’s gone out because the guy whose job it was to keep it going has been mauled by a cave bear.  


The earliest spas centered on natural hot springs.  No one knows exactly where the word “spa” comes from, but there are two main theories.  One is that it comes from the Belgian town of Spa, with a capital S, known since Roman times for its baths.  The other theory, a particularly clingy one, is that “spa” is an acronym for the Latin phrase salus per aquae or “health through water.”  However, this is almost certainly crap, since pronounceable acronyms to shorten phrases are the origins of modern words, not ancient ones.  See also, the F word. Bonus fact, an acronym like scuba can be pronounced, but short-formers like FBI are initialisms. If a word existed and someone later makes up an acronym that works for it, which is the case with spa, that is a backronym.


Indigenous peoples around the world used them for medicinal and spiritual practices.  The Greeks were known for bathing in hot springs and mineral waters and the Romans were famously into their baths, not only as a place for getting clean, assuming you were one of the first people in the shared, unfiltered water that day, but for socializing.  The tradition spread to the east and transformed to the Middle Eastern hammam, known more casually as a Turkish bath, though bathing fell out of fashion with the Roman empire.  


The less said about the state of western medicine and the sentiments toward personal hygiene in the medieval period, the better.  It wasn’t as bad as most of us assume, but it wasn’t great. From the 16th century what had at one time been holy sites of pilgrimage, many associated with healing, were adapted by Protestant reformers to fit their new model of faith.  In Denmark, for example, belief in holy springs was initially abolished by royal decree in 1570, but when this was clearly ignored they turned instead to emphasising that the healing power of the springs was due to the grace of God, not due to some saint or other force inherent in the spring.  The growth in the 17th and 18th centuries of spa towns, particularly in Protestant Germany and England, stem in part from these roots.


Time went on, indoor plumbing was going like gang-busters, and bathing moved from an occasional indulgence or a medical treatment to regular old keeping-clean.  The special part of it returned to the springs and natural waterways where it had started and those who felt under the weather, and had the money, would go there to “take the waters” as it was termed.  By the 19th century, European “cure-towns” like Baden-Baden, Karlsbad, and Marienbad were lavish destinations for the wealthy and the top end of the rising middle class. According to David Clay Large, in The Grand Spas of Central Europe, these great spa towns were “the equivalent of today’s major medical centers, rehab retreats, golf resorts, conference complexes, fashion shows, music festivals, and sexual hideaways—all rolled into one.” 


There were people for whom baths were medicine, but not by choice.  Hydrotherapy was key to many doctors’ approaches for treating the mentally ill, especially women with their hysteria.  Oh, how hysterical women are. Hysteria, of course, being the ancient Greek belief that the uterus moved freely about the body, like a goldfish in a tank, and if got somewhere it wasn’t supposed to be, it would cause problems.  These problems came in the form of emotions, speaking up for oneself, and anything else that annoyed or inconvenienced your father or husband. Every single spa or doctor or curative in today’s episode has a whole subtopic for female complaints, but they were usually complaints about females, so I left them out, lest they take over the topic.  Some women, and men, had genuine mental health issues. Today, we use talk therapy and medication. In the not too distant past, patients might be dunked repeatedly in ice baths, made to stay in scalding hot baths for hours, or, in one practice that I lack the imagination to come up with, put in what was essentially a casket with air holes and submerged under water.


Apart from their trendy nature, health spas of the era had a redeeming feature — they were at least as good as most of the medicine at the time.  Warm water soothed arthritis in the time before anti-inflammatories, getting away from the coal smoke of the city eased sufferers of respiratory problems, and a focus on healthy or plant-based eating that was often part and parcel to the space could sort out digestive complaints.  Large writes. “But often as not ‘curists’ also went to play, to be entertained, and to socialize. In their heyday the grand spas were hotbeds of cultural creativity, true meccas of the arts. High-level politics was another grand spa specialty, with statesmen descending on the cure towns to negotiate treaties, craft alliances, and plan wars.”  


In the States, the best known health spa was built in an area with no natural resources to spin as curatives. What it did have was a doctor and shrewd businessman who was passionately convinced of the importance of bowel health and the deleterious effects of self-love, the inventor of corn flakes, John Harvey Kellogg and his Battle Creek Sanitarium, “sanitarium” at the time meaning generally a restful place to improve one’s health or specifically a place to treat TB.  He believed in what he called biologic living, for the benefit of body, mind, and soul. Much of biologic living stemmed from his faith as a Seventh-day Adventist, a Christian subset that, among other things, keeps kosher and eschews caffiene, alcohol, tattoos and premarital sex. Dr. Kellogg and his brother Will, who would eventually split from him, add sugar to corn flakes, and founded Kellogg’s breakfast cereal, grew the Battle Creek Sanitarium with its state of the art medical center, spa, and grand hotel into a national holistic wellness destination.  The Battle Creek San was a bulwark of health, with as much importance placed on cleanliness as on the vegetarian meals or exercise programs. The marble floors, 5 acres worth in total, were lauded in their pamphlets, saying “germs and vermin can never find a lodging.” Admirers and patients included several U.S. presidents, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Amelia Earhart, and Sojourner Truth. Kellogg practiced much of what he preached; he was a vegetarian before the word was widely known and was so strong a believer in the harmful effects of sex that his four-decade marriage was reportedly completely celibate.  


If you were just there for a “traditional” health spa experience, there *were baths.  46 different kinds, in fact, including the “continuous bath,” which was much like a regular tub bath, except that it could last, Kellogg wrote, “for many hours, days, weeks, or months, as the case may require.” Apparently the patient was allowed to get out occasionally to use the toilet.  Like other physicians of his day, Kellogg experimented with the therapeutic effects of artificial light. Light therapy has shown promise in treating depression and things like seasonal affective disorder, but Kellogg promoted light therapy as an almost universal cure-all and built what he called the world’s first “electric light bath.”  This healthy bath was basically a wooden cabinet lined with light bulbs, in which the patient could either sit or lie down, to be cured of, if Kellogg was right, diabetes, insomnia, gangrene, syphilis. He wasn’t right, in case I needed to say that.  

Kellogg’s interest in the therapeutic powers of electricity didn’t end with light baths.  He administered “sinusoidal current” to patients’ skin with a device he cobbled together from telephone parts.  He claimed the shocks were painless. While electrical stimulation also has some legitimate uses, Kellogg again thought it would cure anything including lead poisoning, tuberculosis, obesity and various vision problems when applied directly to the patient’s eyeballs.  

Kellogg devised countless contraptions for exercise and therapeutic purposes, though not without some failures.  Take for example the vibrating chair. Put aside thoughts of a La-Z-Boy recliner with three-speed massage, this was a plain wooden chair that shook up to 60 times a second, with the apparent goal of stimulating the bowels.  It was an appropriate set piece alongside various machines designed to beat, slap, pound, and flog guests to stimulate their circulation. Speaking of things that vibrate, Kellogg fought masturbation as fervently as he fought meat-eating, drink, and other foes of the colon.  To break boys of the habit, Kellogg suggested tying their hands, bandaging the offending organ, or putting a cage over it, like a ridiculous one-man show of The Man in the Iron Mask. It’s harder to make light of what he prescribed for girls – clitoridectomy, either surgical or by the application of pure carbolic acid.


As anyone who watched the under-appreciated movie The Road to Wellville will attest, Kellogg was an enthusiastic devotee of the enema.  “More people need washing out than any other remedy,” he wrote. An entire floor of every building on the Sanitarium campus, usually the basement, were earmarked solely for lower gastrointestinal studies and treatment (i.e. enemas).  A bog-standard enema might involve a pint or two of liquid; Kellogg back patients up to a special machine capable of pumping 15 quarts of water per minute into the patient’s bowels. Or, if he was feeling festive, yogurt. Only half of it was in the form of a colonic; you had to eat the other half.  Maybe it worked best if they met in the middle, I don’t know. The next version of the machine dispensed 15 *gallons of water. While the state of a person’s bowels and the presence of certain bacteria in fecal matter can indicate a patient’s current state of health, Kellogg took things too far.


Speaking of people’s individual beliefs, we got two new reviews recently, one glowing, the other, not so much.  This reviewer has unsubscribed because I “constantly fails to follow normal podcasting conventions” about where reviews, social media shoutouts and calls to action should go.  Apparently, they’ve never heard a mid-roll before. They are of course entitled to their opinion, but it irks me that their rant is sitting there at the top of the reviews. If you’ve ever thought about leaving a positive review, could you take a moment and do it soon?  I’d love to my brainiacs drive that review off the first page and restore the show’s 5-star rating. Don’t address that other review specifically. That person is entitled to their opinion, even if they did refer to the Brainiac’s Breakroom, where I post extra facts, as “a random Facebook group.”  It’s not random, it’s a place to share cool things you learn, like recently when Donald posted, At the local bar watching Daytona 500. There’s a piano here so i checked, the cars pitch is C# below Middle C,” and Adam shared a video on the origin of the F word. Everyone is welcome over at Speaking of FB, thanks to the listeners who left recommendations.  Neville says the show will add color to your life, Jennifer says it’s made her hour-plus commute bearable, and someone calling themselves Campbell Soup even noticed that I submitted a lateral thinking puzzle to the great podcast Futility Closet. When worlds collide. You can follow the show [links].


When the market crashed in 1929, too few people could afford the conspicuous consumption of a stay at the San.   The San limped along until 1941, two years before Kellogg’s death, when it was sold to the US military and became the Percy Jones Army Hospital.  Today, the remaining 21 buildings exist as a federal complex. Only the main building has been preserved from modernization and has been added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1976.  Around the world, the devastation of two world wars and the rise of modern medicine took much of the wind out of the sails of the great spa cities. People began to see hot springs and mineral spas as out-dated and old-timey, and attendance plummeted.  


While Kellogg had his MD and many of his treatments were based in scientific, albeit flawed, thought, many of the spas hinged on the appeal to ancient wisdom fallacy.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against natural medicine. That’s where our modern medicines started. What I’m not down for is holding natural remedies above science because nature must be intrinsically superior.  I’ll let comedian Dara O’Briain explain. [clip] The other snag with natural remedies, the snake in the wheatgrass, is how it leaves people wide open to snake oil salesmen. It’s such a strange expression, when you stop and think on it, snake oil.  They don’t look fatty, snakes, but the phrase really does refer to a lipid extracted from a legless reptile. Actual snake oil came to America in the later half of the 19th century with Chinese immigrants. These men, often signed to multi-year labor contracts for wages far below their white counterparts,  slaving away on the Transcontinental railroad. They used an Omega 3-rich oil extracted from Chinese water snakes to treat inflammation in their joint at the end of the day. The first snake oil salesman was a cowboy turned showman, Clark Stanley, “The Rattlesnake King.” At the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, Stanley, who claimed to have studied with a Hopi medicine man, put on a show-stopping demonstration.  I’ll let Joe Schwarcz, the director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society, describe the scene, “[Stanley] reached into a sack, plucked out a snake, slit it open and plunged it into boiling water. When the fat rose to the top, he skimmed it off and used it on the spot to create ‘Stanley’s Snake Oil,’ a liniment that was immediately snapped up by the throng that had gathered to watch the spectacle.”  Stanley’s bottles said “snake oil” on the label, but, like this backstory, that was also a lie. It was proven later that his products didn’t contain oil from any kind of snake, rattle or otherwise. After seizing a shipment of Stanley’s Snake Oil in 1917, federal investigators found that it contained mineral oil, rendered beef fat, red pepper, and turpentine. But at the time, it was a hit, and with success came imitators.  Other fraudsters, scammers, and confidence men set out across the west in traveling shows or ran ads in big city newspapers, selling bottles of dubious substances with huge promises of curative powers to unsuspecting people.


The public eventually caught on and a misappropriated Chinese folk remedy became symbolic of fraud.   It’s been part of our lexicon since at least 1927, when it appeared in Stephen Vincent Benet’s epic poem John Brown’s Body, in the lines “Crooked creatures of a thousand dubious trades … sellers of snake-oil balm and lucky rings.”  So what happened to Stanley when he was found out? He was fined $20 (that’s about $429 in today’s dollars) for violating the food and drug act and for “misbranding” his product by “falsely and fraudulently represent[ing] it as a remedy for all pain.”  He paid the fine and didn’t refute the charge.


25 years of selling beef drippings as medicine is a bold business strategy, but Stanley would have to tip his hat to a far more brazen huckster, the man the American Medical Association called “King of the Quacks, the prophetically named Curtis Howe Springer.   He didn’t create a product, he created an entire town. A town with no full-time vowels in its name, no less, the Mojave Desert town of Zzyzx.


Springer was born in 1896 in Birmingham, Alabama.  That is one of the few verifiable facts about his early life.  He might have been a boxing instructor during World War I as a boxing instructor, or he might now; he could have preached against the scourge of alcohol for William Jennings Bryan, thought we don’t know; he may or may not have attended college in Chicago and possibly worked at a school in Florida, or not. and may or may not have attended college in Chicago. Springer gave himself whatever advanced degrees he felt sounded best when he was out on the lecture circuit in the 30’s, from MD to Ph.D,  These degrees came from schools that didn’t exist, like “The National Academy,” “Westlake West Virginia College,” and, the most chutzpah-displaying, “The Springer School of Humanism.” He tried to reach more people by moving to radio, but the first radio station at which he applied reported him to the AMA, who then issued an entire paper debunking any possible claim Springer might have to any training or degrees of any sort, in the beautifully titled “Nostrums and Quackery and Pseudo-Medicine.”  It didn’t matter — Springer was teflon before teflon had even been invented — and he went into radio anyway. His radio addresses were a wacky mix of religion, politics, and fake medicine. But have no fear, because whatever afflicted you, he could sell you a beverage that would cure it. You would be, in his words, “internally, externally, and eternally clean.” Things weren’t taking root in the cities of the eastern half of the country the way he’d wanted, so he set his sights west, on an oasis/swamp in the Mojave Desert.


In 1944, Springer filed a mining claim on 12,800 acres in the Mojave, which contained a picturesque spring, known as Soda Springs, surrounded by palm trees.  The mining claim was a less expensive way to get access to and control over the land. He had the right to mine for whatever he wanted and to keep the proceeds.  The mining claim didn’t bestow ownership of the property, but paltry details like that wouldn’t stop Springer from developing it and even trying to sell parts of it.  At no point did he plan to draw any resources up from the land… apart from money. Springer named it Zzyzx to be “the last word” in health, which would at least be true alphabetically.


The Mojave desert is peppered with hot springs; Soda Springs was not one of them.  Details, details. Springer installed a bunch of heating pumps to fake it. He also built a hotel on the cheap to serve as a base of operations for the sale of over two dozen miracle health cures he claimed to have created.  You could spend your hard-earned money on:

Antideluvian Tea: A laxative mixture of herbs and tree bark.  The word “antideluvian” means before the great flood in the bible, apparently suggesting it was a very ancient remedy, not that the same plants grow in the American southwest as grew in the Middle East thousands of years ago.  Re-Hib: to cure dyspepsia. This one might actually work, at least if your chief complaint was heartburn, because it was mostly baking soda. The Hollywood Pep Cocktail: A blend of “concentrated vital food energy.” Five bucks says it was a smoothie made of cheap root vegetables and sugar.  Mo-Hair: Not the material spun from goat or rabbit wool, this likely paste of mud and salt was to be rubbed on the head while the user held their breath as long as they could. If you turned red in the face, that meant it was working. Next time you nip to the bathroom, hold your breath until your lungs protest and look in the mirror.  Wow, Mo-hair works so well, you don’t even need it! Speaking of coincidences, you might see results from using Zy-Crystals, dried salt from the oasis, because the instructions also told you to “breathe deeply, get at least eight hours of uninterrupted sleep in twenty-four, exercise in moderation, think only clean and constructive thoughts. Also, drink one pint of water one hour before each meal.”  Of course you’d start to feel better.


As with the modern wellness industry, good health was a simple mail order away, for those who could afford it.  Springer’s 1972 catalog contailed Cosmo: “Suggested by an Indian for Lovely Skin” ($85 for three doses in today’s money), F-W-O: “Food Delightfully Pleasing to Women” ($142 for 24 ounces) and Zzyzx Foot Crystals ($142 for 40 ounces).  And people paid. Springer kept Zzyzx going for about thirty years. Eventually, though, enough dissatisfied customers spoke loudly enough, in the traditional American medium of the lawsuit, that the government figured out that Springer was a fraud, who was flagrantly squatting on the land and selling bogus cures that at best were mud mixed with over-the-counter chemicals.  The feds threw Springer off the oasis in 1974 and dropped him in prison for a few months for false advertising. Zzyzx was no more, though its remains still sit in the desert to this day, near the Cal State U Desert Studies Center. In a way, Springer got his wish. While Zzyzx isn’t the last name in health and wellness, it is the last name that appears in American atlases. Bonus fact: a 2006 movie about Zzyzx starring Katherine Heigl became the lowest grossing theatrically released American movie, of all time.  It ran in one Dallas, Texas theater for six days, grossing $30. Not $30,000. $30, a Hamilton and two Lincolns. There is no record of what the four people who saw it thought.


And that’s … You might have recognized the products I listed at the top of the show as coming from Goop, the bizarrely named wellness company created by actress Gwyneth Paltrow.  It was hard to leave her out of this episode, but Goop’s shenanigan’s are current affairs, which is more prickly to talk about than history. What I can tell you is, like Zzyzx, Goop is facing lawsuits for their deceptive business practices.  Their website was found to contain not less than 50 unsubstantiated medical claims, though the company claims they were, and I quote, “honest disagreements.” There are a lot of good people in the wellness industry, but there are also a lot of people who will take your money and tell you whatever you need to hear to give them more money.  MedLife Crisis video Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.  And stop sticking weird things in your lady garden because an actress said so.  You can… Thanks….