Cur­ing pso­ri­a­sis with ar­senic, ra­dium and nude sun­bathing

The cures suf­fer­ers had to put up with in the past could be worse than the skin con­di­tion it­self

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - From The Archives - Louise Ní Chríodáin

First recog­nised in 1808, and er­ro­neously as­so­ci­ated with lep­rosy un­til the 1840s, pso­ri­a­sis is a skin con­di­tion that con­tin­ues to defy treat­ment for many suf­fer­ers. For 158 years, how­ever, the pages of The Ir­ish Times have been used to both prof­fer them the lat­est med­i­cal ad­vice – from ar­senic to nude sun­bathing – and to ad­ver­tise a plethora of lo­tions and po­tions.

As the last cen­tury got un­der way, the pa­per’s Health Hints col­umn reg­u­larly rec­om­mended pop­u­lar pre­scrip­tions. In 1903 cor­re­spon­dent “Kil­dare” is ad­vised to take an ar­senic so­lu­tion, “a dessert spoon­ful three times a day, to be grad­u­ally in­creased, un­less it causes sick­ness . . . ”

Top­i­cal sug­ges­tions were also un­pleas­ant. In 1902 reader JW is told to ap­ply an oint­ment con­tain­ing “chrysophenic acid” but warned: “It stains the li­nen so that it will not come out and you should use old un­der­cloth­ing.” Cor­re­spon­dent “Thomond” is ad­vised in 1907 to try an oint­ment of liquouris car­boni pi­cis, hy­drar­gyri am­mo­niati and paraf­fini mol­lis – coal tar, am­mo­ni­ated mer­cury and paraf­fin.

It’s no sur­prise that suf­fer­ers then, as now, were pre­pared to un­dergo dis­taste­ful treat­ments, as the scaly skin con­di­tion can be un­com­fort­able, itchy and un­sightly. A 1989 study of Dublin pa­tients found that 75 per cent avoided up to five of the fol­low­ing ac­tiv­i­ties – swim­ming, sun­bathing, vis­it­ing a hair­dresser, play­ing sports, com­mu­nal show­ers or baths, danc­ing and leav­ing their home.

One suf­ferer, who should have stayed in his own home, be­came the sub­ject of the 1957 foren­sics col­umn Science and Crime: The Scot­land Yard Lab­o­ra­to­ries. It re­counted: “A house was bro­ken into through a win­dow and some prop­erty stolen. On the win­dow sill was no­ticed a cir­cu­lar sil­ver patch, and in­side on the ta­ble a sim­i­lar patch. On lab­o­ra­tory anal­y­sis they were found to be flakes of skin . . . One of the po­lice of­fi­cers knew a lo­cal thief suf­fer­ing from the skin dis­ease, pso­ri­a­sis, and the man was soon ap­pre­hended.”

While the thief’s skin landed him in prison, the sever­ity of the con­di­tion could also ne­ces­si­tate ad­mis­sion to other in­sti­tu­tions. An ac­count of a 1924 gover­nors’ meet­ing at Don­ny­brook’s Royal Hospi­tal for In­cur­ables recorded that Josephine McTighe, who had pso­ri­a­sis, was one of five can­di­dates voted for se­lec­tion as a pa­tient. The board re­jected 11 other “dis­tress­ing cases af­flicted with con­sump­tion, heart dis­ease, paral­y­sis and rheumatic arthri­tis” in her favour.


In 1872 Beatty’s, a re­as­sur­ingly “non-mecu­rial and per­fectly safe lo­tion”, claimed to be an “in­fal­li­ble” rem­edy, while by 1886, for the price of “13 stamps”, read­ers could write away for a pam­phlet by Dr S Berry Ni­blett, with direc­tions for “diet and baths”. In 1887 the min­eral wa­ters of Wood­hall Spa were be­ing pro­moted for “scro­fula, rick­ets, eczema and pso­ri­a­sis”, as well as “dis­eases pe­cu­liar to women”. And by 1900, Burgesse’s Lion Oint­ment, which for decades had claimed weekly, “An­other Leg Saved” from be­ing “taken off”, added pso­ri­a­sis to its list of “cures”.

Sulpho­line Lo­tion ap­peared from the mid-1870s, and promised to “to­tally de­stroy” old skin dis­or­ders. This “harm­less fluid” was one of many “se­cret reme­dies” to come un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the Bri­tish Med­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion, which dis­closed in 1912 that it con­tained zinc ox­ide, cal­cium sul­phate, glyc­erin, rose wa­ter; and its main in­gre­di­ent was sul­phur – brim­stone.

One par­tic­u­larly ill-con­sid­ered in­gre­di­ent, how­ever, was ra­dium, a com­po­nent of Dr Sauber­mann’s Ra­dium Salve, touted by ad­ver­to­ri­als through­out 1909 as a cure not only for pso­ri­a­sis but a range of ill­nesses and ail­ments in­clud­ing wrin­kles, rheuma­tism, can­cer growths and swollen knees.

‘Skin chal­lenge’ By 1916 Domino Brand an­nounced it would take on ev­ery other “al­leged skin cure” for £100 in a “skin chal­lenge”, while Gib­sol Skin Balm claimed to be the “safest, speed­i­est and most ef­fi­ca­cious rem­edy yet dis­cov­ered for pso­ri­a­sis”. In the 1920s, the mak­ers of Ger­mo­lene used the pur­ported tes­ti­mo­nial of a navy vet­eran from the first World War – who de­vel­oped pso­ri­a­sis af­ter be­ing tor­pe­doed and spend­ing two hours adrift – to per­suade po­ten­tial cus­tomers.

Small ads of­fer­ing treat­ment by chemists, herbal­ists, hyp­no­tists and beauty clin­ics con­tin­ued up to the new mil­len­nium. How­ever, far more im­por­tantly for pa­tients the news­pa­per also her­alded new in­no­va­tions and re­search, in­clud­ing a 1951 visit to Dublin by Prof Ed­ward Ken­dall, the bio­chemist who dis­cov­ered and de­vel­oped cor­ti­sone. In the fol­low­ing decades the pi­o­neer­ing of light ther­apy, the im­pact of fish oils and the open­ing of a spe­cial­ist day clinic at Hume Street Hospi­tal all mer­ited cov­er­age.

Nude sun­bathing

The news­pa­per also recorded the first meet­ing of the Ir­ish Pso­ri­a­sis As­so­ci­a­tion in 1976, which was re­minded that there were 80 mil­lion pso­ri­a­sis suf­fer­ers world­wide and the con­di­tion “was nei­ther in­fec­tious nor con­ta­gious and could only be in­her­ited”. That ar­ti­cle was writ­ten by jour­nal­ist Chris­tine Mur­phy, who had the con­di­tion her­self, and in a sub­se­quent ar­ti­cle that year about the con­di­tion and treat­ments, dis­cussed Is­rael’s in­ter­na­tional pso­ri­a­sis treat­ment cen­tre on the Dead Sea, where sun­bathing with­out clothes was en­cour­aged.

“Nude sun­bathing as­sumes a highly moral and ther­a­peu­tic pur­pose for us pso­ri­at­ics, “she wrote. “If the sun helps and pso­ri­a­sis is on your bot­tom, it would seem very un­rea­son­able not to ex­pose your bot­tom to the sun.”

Ger­mo­lene to the res­cue: In the 1920s, the mak­ers of the oint­ment used the pur­ported tes­ti­mo­nial of a navy vet­eran who had de­vel­oped pso­ri­a­sis af­ter be­ing tor­pe­doed and spend­ing two hours adrift.

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