Andrew Burd on Prince Charles and the Chinese water snake

Andrew BurdI see that Edzard Ernst, the first Professor of Complementary Medicine in the UK has branded Prince Charles as a “snake oil salesman.” Snake oil is an interesting term and the derivation illustrates a broad spectrum of human nature ranging from human ingenuity, observation, and tradition, to greed and entrepreneurship. How so?

Snake oil is a traditional Chinese medicine made from the oil of the Chinese water snake (enhydics chinensis). The oil was used to treat inflammatory conditions and contemporary analysis indicates the Chinese water snake has a very high content of eicosapentanoic acid (EPA) which is an omega-3 fatty acid. The concentration is in the region of 20%. EPA is the starting material to make a range of prostaglandins which have an effect on certain aspects of the inflammatory response.  Indeed they act in a manner similar to aspirin. As EPA can be absorbed topically it is no wonder that the genuine snake oil deserved its true therapeutic status.

Snake oil, the original snake oil, was introduced to North America by the Chinese labourers who were working in the railroad gangs building the transcontinental railroad which was going to open up the West coast of America. Non-Chinese observers were able to witness the efficacy of the Chinese snake oil and in the true spirit of American entrepreneurship they decided on a counterfeit approach selling oil from home grown snakes. Alas the EPA content of the North America rattlesnake is only 8.5% and it was not long before the peddlers of American snake oil fell into disrepute and by extension “snake oil salesman” became associated with deception and greed.

Perhaps before Professor Ernst labels the Prince in such a derogatory manner he should look objectively at the claims that are being made.  Not all snake oil is bad and this is certainly a case where “made in China” is a better endorsement than “made in the USA.”

Andrew Burd is professor of plastic, reconstructive and aesthetic surgery at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His major clinical interests involve paediatric burns care and the role of plastic surgery in the palliation of advanced malignancy. Academic interests include pragmatic ethics related to the practice of medicine including research and publication.