Will a German Doctor’s Snake-Oil Doom America’s Carnivorous Plants?

It's the golden age of podcasts, everybody, and I've just discovered a fine one: Criminal. Each episode is 20 minutes long and has something to do with some sort of crime. The first episode profiled a man convicted of killing his wife who may be freed by proof an owl actually killed her. From this podcast we learn that 'owlstrike' is a word, and that owls usually attack humans on the right rear side of the head, and that owls are strong and silent and can really fuck you up if they want. There's also a story about the late 1990s inkjet currency-counterfeit trend, and a profile of one of Wyoming's three female coroners, who talks about a man who kept himself alive during a cold winter by drinking antifreeze.

The German connection comes in Episode 5, 'Dropping like Flies'. The carnivorous venus flytrap plant grows naturally only in a 90-square-mile of North Carolina:

Problem is, the market for flytraps is booming. Poachers can get between 10 and 25 cents per plant, and local flytrap nurseries make a healthy profit selling them on. The plants aren't yet listed as endangered, so the penalties are relatively low.

'Criminal' goes on the hunt for who is buying all these plants, and quickly arrives at the door of Carnivora. Carnivora is a U.S.-based company that sells a product based on extracts from the Venus Flytrap plant which it claims boosts the immune system. They're not allowed to claim that it cures cancer under U.S. law, but that is the main selling point in countries where they can make this claim. The man who came up with the formula was a German 'country doctor' named Helmut Keller. This 1985 article (g) from Der Spiegel records the frenzy surrounding the then-new preparation, as desperate cancer patients begged Keller to treat them.

Now, as the podcast reports, Keller's been dead for four years ('still here, but on the Other Side', claims the company's new director), the company is under new management, and is not being accused of breaking any American laws, since it only calls Carnivora a dietary supplement, not a cancer cure. Also, the current owner of the company claims it doesn't buy any flytraps from North Carolina, but instead gets them from laboratories in Holland and China. But if Carnivora isn't behind the huge recent increases in demand for flytrap plants, who or what is? As you might expect in the area of carnivorous-plant-poaching and alternative medicine, there are a lot of gray areas. A fascinating listen.

Heil Hahnemann: Globuli in the Third Reich

Just in time, Spiegel has a cover story on homeopathy called The Great Illusion (g) here's the English version. Not much new here: homeopathy can't possibly work as described, doesn't cure illnesses; yet millions spend billions on it (interestingly, it's most popular, in Europe, among female college graduates). Both articles provide a list of amusing base ingredients for homeopathic remedies, including: "[a]phids, ovary extract from cows, hornets, cockroaches, woodlouse, toad
poison, mercury, saliva from rabid dogs or skunk secretion, … Coca-Cola, rotten beef, canine excrement, condom rubber, human
testicle extract and horse hair."

New to me was the strength and sophistication of the homeopathic remedies lobby and the fact that homeopathy was praised and intensively investigated by National Socialist researchers as an alternative to "Jewified school-medicine" (verjudete Schulmedizin). The National Socialists even hosted a 1937 World Congress of Homeopathy in Berlin, at which Rudolf Hess was an eager observer. The Nazis conducted fairly sophisticated studies (some, alas, on concentration camp inmates) whichshowed that homeopathic remedies had only a placebo effect. Basically prayer in pill form. So the studies were suppressed for decades, until the "Donner Report" (written by one of the participating doctors) was released in the mid-1990s.

Looking for a bit more information, I came across this interesting site (g) from 'Praxis Frauenweise', a homeopathic practice 'for women and children' in Nuremburg run by Gudrun Barwig. The site reprints a 1996 article called 'Homoepathy and National Socialism' which Barwig wrote for a natural-healing magazine. Just to make things clear, the author of this page is a homeopathic practitioner. The article contains some fascinating quotations from Nazi-era publications showing how the homeopathic worldview was embraced by the Nazis and wrapped up in the Third Reich's very own eerie vocabulary.
One Reich, One Volk, One Remedy! Here's a sentence from a 1933 article: "Thus, the Nordic man Hahnemann again brought German order and clarity in to the jumbled teachings about sickness that the chaotic South had lulled us into believing." At left is a group of homeopathic practitioners at a meeting in Chemnitz, gathered under a poster saluting Samuel Hahnemann, founder of homeopathy.

The article also notes that Third Reich doctors, although somewhat wary of homeopathy as a treatment, nevertheless appreciated it on two important political levels: it was already hugely popular among millions of Germans, and it was quite cheap. Thus, the Nazis supported homeopathy in many ways, including the creation of the Robert Bosch Hospital near Stuttgart, a 300-bed facility billed as the world's first exclusively homeopathic hospital. The homeopaths, as the Frauenweise article makes clear, repaid the favor with cringeworthy adulation of Nazi health functionaries, as well as ludicrous explanations of why homeopathy was truly, deeply völkisch. One even noted that homeopathic medicine would not have to be "de-jewified", since almost no homeopaths were Jews. According to Robert N. Proctor's Racial Hygiene, one homeopathic doctor, Rudolf Tischner, noted in 1937 that "in the Third Reich, organic medicine has found a respect that it never, not in its wildest dreams, imagined it might achieve." (233)

I'm not suggesting that homeopathy is discredited because the Nazis were fans, of course, since the Nazis were also fans of things that worked (highways) and things that were quite scientific (V2 rockets). Nevertheless, most aspects of German culture which were enthusiastically adopted and supported by the National Socialist dictatorship lost prestige after World War II — yet homeopathy seems to have been spared.

Interesting, that.

German Word of the Week: Tränenfilm-Bausteine

The window of your local German pharmacy is always good for a surprise, usually in the form of some shiny-packaged folk remedy for frenulum rot based on the extract of an Estonian wildflower. The ad display might well be accompanied by an adorable marketing mascot. In this case, perhaps a no-longer inflamed frenulum gamboling about in the Tuhu Bog.

But what have we here? (h/t MG):

authentic german eyewash! 

The comically literal translation is: "Seepower and protection plus Tearfilm-Buildstones." 

A more mainstream translation would be "Better vision and protection plus tearfilm components". When I hear the phrase tearfilm component, I think: shirtless hunk widower with cancer-stricken adopted Malawian daughter.

Perhaps that's not what's meant here — but note that the name of the firm making this product is "DoubleHeart", and its logo consists of (sniffle) two joined red and black hearts… 

Homeopathy Catches on in the U.S.

Speaking of odd beliefs, a surprising number of Germans who you woulnd't expect to believe in homeopathic medicine actually do. Homeopathy is a quaint 19th-century pseudoscience that, unlike phrenology or Lombrosian criminology, lives on. Homeopathic folk-remedies are so popular in Germany, in fact, that most health-insurance providers will pay (g) for them. And now, it looks like homeopathy is catching on in the States, as well:

While the gold standard for drugs and vaccines is proof of effectiveness in the form of randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled trials, there is no rigorous evidence that homeopathy works better than a placebo for any condition. That hasn't stopped a growing number of Americans from using it to battle a panoply of ailments, including arthritis, herpes and flu. A federally funded survey in 2007 found that in the previous year nearly 5 million Americans used homeopathic remedies, made from substances including duck liver, heavy metals such as arsenic, herbs and poison ivy, and diluted in water until they are virtually undetectable.

A form of medicine invented by a German physician in the 1700s, homeopathy is predicated on the belief that "like cures like" — that a disease can be treated using a substance that produces similar symptoms in healthy people. It seeks to stimulate the body's ability to heal itself through the ingestion of highly diluted substances that might be toxic at higher doses. Even though homeopathic medicines use substances so diluted that virtually no molecule of the active ingredient remains, proponents believe that water contains the "memory" of the original substance.

Many scientists dismiss homeopathy, which defies the laws of chemistry and physics, as quackery. Robert Park, a prominent physicist and critic at the University of Maryland who has written extensively about pseudoscience, has called it "voodoo science."

N.B.: I don't really have anything against homeopathic remedies. In fact, I find them to be one of the endearingly backward-looking aspects of life in Germany. I don't care what people want to spend their money on, as long as the the industry's tightly-regulated, which seems to be the case in Germany. Although perhaps someone will correct me in comments!

Nose-Cleaning Salts

The first in Pharmacopoeia Germanica, an occasional series featuring some of the mysterious products you will find in German pharmacies:


"Emser Nose-Cleaning Salts — physiological — with natural Ems salt.  Medicinal product for purification of the nose." 

You snort them, apparently.  My friend swears by them.  "It’s like breathing ocean air!  You should try it!"  I haven’t worked up the courage yet.