From Clips to Clicks: Have a secret disease? Well here’s your cure!

Editor’s Note: No, this isn’t The Onion, and yes, you are looking at a real news story. Students in Kelley Crawford’s Alternative Journalism class at Tulane University dove into the archives of the Times-Picayune to find some shinning star articles. Everything from people having snakes in their bellies to a man becoming a human torch will be covered in the series, “From Clips to Clicks.” Each weekly post will display the original piece from the Times-Picayune (the “clips”), and then the written text will either be a modern adaptation or a commentary on the piece that’s published on ViaNolaVie (the “clicks”). 

With COVID-19 having scientist mentally running around to find a vaccine, we thought we’d look back to New Orleans history (1841, to be exact) and see what they did when a “secret disease,” as they called it, popped up. Their remedy was Dr. Abernethy’s Detergent, and it’s as ridiculous as you imagine.

Times-Picayune advertisement from 1841 (Photo courtesy of Tulane Archive)

Ah yes, the secret diseases. You know, the ones that are really, uh, secretive? Dr. Abernethy’s Detergent truly does cure everything. No need to delve into the specifics (because shh, we don’t know them either).  We are so confident in our miracle drug that we don’t even think it needs any recommendation, except for, you know, an advertisement in the newspaper.



Medicine sure has come a long way since 1841. All you need to do is take one look through newspaper archives to see advertisements for an “Indian Panacea” and other cure-all drugs. The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) weren’t established until 1906 and 1914, respectively, so there was no regulation on what drug advertisements could and could not say. It was not uncommon to see ads list 15-20 maladies that their medicine could cure, or lofty promises to relieve you of your symptoms in record time.  In an age of highly regulated drug advertisements and the required years of testing before a new drug is offered to the public, it seems almost crazy that people may have believed the claims these advertisements make.

Crazy, but not totally unheard of.  Despite all of the advancements in medicine, an outspoken minority has taken to touting essential oils as the new panacea.  I’m sure you’ve seen it all over Facebook: “use ylang-ylang to treat headaches” or “tea tree oil was a lifesaver when it came to my skin infection!” While essential oils have some proven health benefits, the claims made by non-experts on social media—who are often trying to sell oils for multilevel marketing companies—can be dangerous.  Even I would love to believe in all the alleged benefits essential oils, along with other natural remedies, especially when we live in a time when we are exposed to chemicals on a daily basis. And they do work for some symptoms, as I am sure Dr. Abernethy’s Detergent did as well, but they’re no Penicillin. So next time you think you have a “secret disease,” just call your doctor instead of checking your local paper or scrolling through Facebook.


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