Old-time Cure Fails the Smell Test

Rheumatism Cure Rotting Whale Bob Wiles

A cure for rheumatism; Bob Wiles in the carcass of a whale, Twofold Bay [1].  Source: Wellings, C. E. (Charles Eden). National Library of Australia, nla.obj-148641890

Perhaps you enjoy reading through magazines from a century or more ago to look at the advertisements, especially those promising the newest and best cures for a variety of maladies.

For example, listed in Ladies Home Journal from October 1896: “Imperial Granum. Universally acknowledged as the standard and best prepared food for nursing mothers, infants and children, invalids and convalescents, for dyspeptic, delicate, infirm and aged persons.” Just a few years later, advertised in Conkey’s Home Journal, from November 1902: “Jo-He, the Great Magnetic Oil from Texas. Seventeen years of cures in 8-30 days. Rheumatism, spinal affections, paralysis, erysipelas, old sores, cancer yield to it readily. 50¢ for a trial can.”

In a different part of the world, but in the same time frame, an unusual cure for rheumatoid arthritis had caught on. It involved immersing oneself in the rotting carcass of a whale for several hours.

A story from the Australian Town and Country Journal, dated November 24, 1894, tells of a well-known businessman from the town of Eden, on the shores of Twofold Bay, whose rheumatoid arthritis was so bad that he needed crutches to move about. He became aware, how is not certain, of a potential cure for his painful disease. He approached a local whale processor who ultimately made a freshly killed southern right whale available for this businessman to use as a warm, slippery, receptacle for his ailing body. The “ammoniacal fumes” limited this gentleman to one hour of treatment before he was lifted out. According to the story, he was seen soon after walking without the aid of crutches.

Smithsonian Magazine, in 2014, referred to a New York Times article from 1896 that told a similar tale. “The ‘whale cure’ was popularized after ‘a gentleman of convivial habits but grievously afflicted with rheumatism’ noticed a whale carcass on the beach. A jokester, he decided to jump right in. (Some later said he was drunk.) His friends were horrified but ‘the heat and the smell were too great’ for them to rescue their achy, daredevil buddy, so they just waited around for him to come out.” When he finally dragged himself out of the whale, “the rheumatism from which he had been suffering for years had entirely disappeared.”

Rheumatism Cure Rotting Whale

A cure for rheumatism; Bob Wiles in the carcass of a whale, with unidentified man, Twofold Bay [2].  Source: Wellings, C. E. (Charles Eden). National Library of Australia, nla.obj-148642047

The telling of this unusual cure was revived in 2014 when the Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM) included the topic in an exhibit on whales. Photos from the National Library of Australia, one of which is included here, show a man in the accepted and expected position for making use of this treatment. The ANMM Digital Curators, Nicole Cama and Penny Edwell, wrote an informative and amusing summary of the proposed cure that provided a bit of notoriety to their region before World War I. Their final paragraph is brilliant,

“As whaling declined in Eden so too did the practice of the whale cure, which ceased to be practiced by about the First World War. However, perhaps people stopped undertaking the whale cure for a very good, and rather malodorous reason:

‘The after-effects are not so pleasant; the patient for a week or so gives off a horrible odour, and is abhorrent to man and beast, and a fit subject for prosecution under the ‘Diseased Animals and Meat Act’.”

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