Hunting For Miracle Cures

We might never find a miracle solution for modern health problems. Maybe it’s time we stopped trying

Tasty? Yes. Miraculous?
Pictured: not fun
“So you’re saying you…fell? Onto the syphilis? Again???
Pictured: probably wrong

Syphilitic Abandon

At the advent of the 20th century, syphilis was a hot topic. No longer the killer pandemic of the 16- and 1700s, it was nevertheless a debilitating disease that was almost ubiquitous with insanity and death. Many — if not most — psychiatric hospitals had entire wards full of people experiencing the depredations of tertiary syphilis, watching in horror as their faces melted off and they slowly slid into paralytic insanity.

Pictured: not effective medication

Arsenic Isn’t All That Much Better

When your options are a) die a horrible death or b) eat mercury for years and then die a horrible death, you’ll try just about anything else.

Pictured: early 20th century treatment for syphilis

When Malaria Is Better

A doctor called Julius Wagner-Juaregg had been trying to cure syphilis for some time. While the arsenic treatments were now widely used and usually quite effective at early-stage syphilis, for people who reached the latter stages of the disease — where the whole body is infected — there were no effective cures.

Enter Penicillin

Penicillin could arguably be described as one of the greatest of all human discoveries**. It’s certainly the hero in our story. In 1907, syphilis went from an untreatable death sentence to a treatable but still horrifying disease. In 1917, late-stage syphilis was finally no longer the end: suddenly, there was hope. But when penicillin came around in 1943, the game really changed.

Pictured: game-changing

Miracle Cures

Almost 100 years on and the story of syphilis has become the holy grail of medical advances. Where before doctors looked for small improvements, we now look for mammoth leaps. Instead of minor increments, everyone wants the silver bullet that will banish a disease once and for all. We look back on the medical advancements of the 20th century — antibiotics, anesthesia, transplant surgery — and try to apply the same rubric to the ailments of our brave new world.

Diabetes: scary
Pictured: not a miracle
Sorry, Fake Harry Potter, no use for you here

Miraculous Medicine

We’ve reached the end. This is where I tell you how you can fix it. I’ll give you a simple, one-line message and you can go away with a cheerful veneer of happiness knowing in your heart that it can’t be that simple.

Much better to take a pill and wish our problems away

It’s been almost a century since we cured syphilis. It hasn’t gone away, but the problems that it causes have gone from a terrible blight to a manageable annoyance. Dying from syphilis is now more about access to medical services than it is about the disease itself.

Fun fact: broccoli can cure anything as long as you hit someone over the head hard enough with it

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