May/June 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 3
The most overrated medical breakthrough—overrated in its day, at least—was the announcement in 1925 that a daily cocktail of radioactive water would grant eternal youth. The Food and Drug Administration tried hard to stop distribution of the drink, sold in the stores as Radithor. However, since the ingredients, radium and water, were classified as natural elements and not as drugs, the product remained on the lips of customers—saved by a matter of semantics. At first the pricey Radithor did impart a certain youthful vigor to aging upper-class colts and kittens. After a few years, however, something began to happen. Radithor drinkers dissolved (not the fad, the people). From the inside out their bodies disappeared, leaving them without bones, faces, voices. People interested above all else in looking youthful spent their last days looking instead as though they’d been exhumed.
It was the Federal Trade Commission that finally ran radium water off the market. If Radithor were marketed today, its makers would be much more sensitive in the wording of their promises, although, if they could only think of something “herbal” about a lump of metal like radium, Radithor might still be gurgling now.
Dr. J. Marion Sims was practicing in Alabama in 1845 when he began to develop / new ideas for the treatment of what were known as “female troubles.” One common ailment, which resulted in incontinence because of gaps in tissue, was regarded as permanent and hopeless, but Sims thought of a way to cure it through minor surgery. Initially he received enthusiastic assistance from his fellow doctors, as he established a small hospital for enslaved AfricanAmerican women who suffered from the malady. Although the specter of performing experimental operations on enslaved subjects has long tainted Dr. Sims’s work, the patients were willing volunteers in the project, its motives being singularly compassionate. After other doctors had lost hope and refused further participation, the patients themselves became Dr. Sims’s team and learned to assist him in surgery. Three of them are mentioned by namein his memoir. Along with the rest, they received the doctor’s gratitude, but in 1849 they received what they wanted even more: a cure. As a founder of a new medical specialty, Dr. Sims went on to start the world’s first women’s hospital, in New York. One reason his contributions are underrated today is that as a Southerner he felt compelled to move his practice overseas after the outbreak of the Civil War. However, the operation for vesicovaginal fistula that was performed in 1849 is still recognized as the dawning of gynecology, a field pioneered by people named Sims, Lucy, Anarcha, and Betsey.