CPP Curiosities: Piercing

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Welcome, fellow historico-medico aficionados to our latest installment of CPP Curiosities, our look back at weird and downright fascinating aspects of medical history. Past installments have examined dubious cancer cures such as Vitamin B-17 and krebiozen, an alleged Persian mummy, and the Greek demigod of medicine who conquered death. This latest installment of CPP Curiosities draws upon a lesson available here at the Mütter Museum, and who better to explain it to you than our resident Museum Educator, Marcy Engleman.

Marcy, the floor is yours!

I have spent years educating students who visit the Mutter Museum. The topics range from forensics to Civil War medicine. But my favorite lesson is body modification. In this lesson, I talk about Chinese foot binding, tattooing, corsetry, and more. The topic from that lesson that I wanted to highlight for this blog is piercing.

Man has been wearing jewelry for millennia, possibly back to Neanderthal days. But in 2016, some Australian scientists found an artifact in a rock shelter that has changed our thinking about body modification. They found a piece of kangaroo bone, shaped long and thin, for the purpose of wearing in the nose septum. It is presumed that warriors might wear a bone in their septum to intimidate their enemy, making them look scary and fierce. Scientists dated this bone to approximately 44,000 BC!

Piercing, the act of cutting or puncturing the skin to insert a piece of jewelry, appears in many cultures across the globe. The reasons for piercings vary, including indicating social ranking or class, displaying tribal affiliation, and intimidating enemies. They can also serve aesthetic purposes or demonstrate rites of passage. For example. women of the Aleutian Islands would wear sea lion whiskers as earrings, as a token of marrying a good hunter. During the Elizabethan Era (late 16th century Britain), English noblemen would wear at least one ear piercing as a symbol of wealth.

Ears aren’t the only body part to be pierced. Navel piercing, mostly a modern fad, dates to Ancient Egypt where royals pierced their navels to demonstrate nobility. Nose piercings were common among African and Indian cultures and gained popularity in Great Britain and the United States during the counterculture and punk movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Between the 14th and 16th centuries, the Aztecs and Mayans used tongue piercings as a form of blood sacrifice.

Lip piercings are common in cultures around the world. Mursi women in Ethiopia have the choice to pierce their lower lips around the age of 16. Over the course of weeks and months, the girls stretch the hole in the lower lips, wearing plugs made of clay or wood. It is often seen as a sign of reproductive potential and social adulthood.

One of the oldest examples of piercing comes from “Ötzi the Iceman,” a body of a man discovered by hikers in the Alps in 1991. It is estimated that he lived approximately 5,300 years ago. Scientists have been able to recreate his appearance, discover his last meal, estimate what he was wearing. They also found was covered with tattoos and his ears were pierced. The gauges on his ears stretched his lobes as wide as 7-11mm.

That is just a brief introduction to one form of body modification. If you are an educator and are interested in learning about more, you can bring your students to the Mutter Museum and book our Body Modifications lesson!

Thanks, Marcy. For our full list of lessons, including Body Modification, check out our website. Until next time, catch you on the strange side!





Piercing: A Cultural History Of Holes


The Karabots Junior Fellows Get A Hands-On Look at Hearts

Students in the Karabots Junior Fellows program hold up a sheep heart during a sheep heart dissection.

The American Heart Association recommends teens get about 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise per day to keep their hearts healthy. Also known as “cardio” or aerobic exercise, moderate to vigorous exercise raise your breathing and heart rate/ these include brisk walking, dancing, biking, and sports that involve running such as basketball and soccer.

Recently, students in the Karabots Junior Fellows Program learned about body’s hardest working muscle. Museum Educator Marcy Engleman led them through a lesson on the heart, examining its structure and its role pumping blood throughout the body. Afterwards, she guided them through a sheep heart dissection, allowing them to apply their knowledge and gain a hands-on understanding of the heart’s anatomy.

Students in the Karabots Junior Fellows Program work together to dissect a sheep heart.

Dissection is a popular activity among our aspiring healthcare professionals and regular readers will recall we have covered dissections in the past. This particular cohort is no stranger to dissection, having examined cow eyes and sheep brains during their short time in the program. As many in this group has expressed interest in surgery, these activities offer them a promising start in their journey toward their future careers.


The Karabots Junior Fellows Examine Fingerprints

A student in the Karabots Junior Fellows Program dusts for fingerprints

At the Center for Education of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, we pride ourselves on introducing students in our youth programs to diverse career paths in healthcare, medicine, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). We feel it is a testament to our educational model when our students feel invested enough in the program to recommend topics to us. Recently, by popular demand, we hosted a session on forensic science for the sixth cohort of the Karabots Junior Fellows Program.

For the uninitiated, forensic science is the application of science as it pertains to the law and encompasses such diverse fields as forensic pathology, forensic anthropology, forensic psychology, odontology, entomology, and toxicology. Longtime readers will recall forensics has been a popular subject in our youth programs. In 2016, students in the fourth cohort developed tabletop games to teach the public about concepts in forensics.

Last month, we invited forensics expert Kimberlee Moran to meet with our students and introduce them to fingerprinting. Moran is an associate teaching professor of forensics at Rutgers-Camden.  Her areas of expertise include archaeology, forensic science, crime scene investigation, and fingerprint analysis. She is also the director of the Arch Street Project, a project in conjunction with the Mütter Research Institute to identify, catalog, study and relocate recently discovered human remains discovered at the former site of the First Baptist Church.

Two students in the Karabots Junior Fellows Program examine fingerprints

During her session with the Karabots students, Moran introduced the kids to basic principles in fingerprint analysis. This involved examining the most common types of fingerprints and ways forensic investigators identify and analyze fingerprint evidence. The students also got the chance to put these ideas into practice by lifting and examining their own fingerprints.

CPP Curiositites: Bad Medicine, Part Two: Vitamin B17

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Hello, greetings, and salutations, fellow medico-historico aficionados, and welcome to the latest installment of CPP Curiosities, our semi-regular foray into weird and interesting chapters in medical history. This is part two in Bad Medicine, our ongoing subseries on dubious and fraudulent cancer cures. This series is a complement to Mixed Signals: A Study of Cancer, our new Mütter Museum exhibit developed by students in the Karabots Junior Fellows Program. Last time, we looked at Krebiozen, a miraculous substance derived from horse blood that, while not curing cancer, led to its purveyors getting charged with over forty counts of fraud and destroyed the reputation of one prominent university vice president.

This time around, we are going to keep the dubious medicine train rolling with a look at a “cure” you might have been sent by your conspiracy-minded relative on Facebook. Hang on tight, because we are taking a look at Vitamin B17.

Image Source: Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia

Vitamin B17 treatment, also known as amygdalin or laetrile treatment, is based on a semi-synthetic compound called laetrile. Laetrile is derived from amygdalin, a compound found in the pits of several nuts and fruits although most commonly associated in this context with apricots.

Amygdalin treatments date back to the 1930s; however, their alleged cancer benefits are usually associated with the father-son duo of Ernst T. Krebs, Sr., and Ernst T. Krebs, Jr. The former was a physician from San Francisco who ran afoul of the Food and Drug Administration in the 1920s for peddling a substance called Syrup Leptinol, a supposedly magical cure-all derived from parsley that could allegedly cure influenza, pneumonia, and asthma. His son, meanwhile, was a self-proclaimed biochemist who claimed to isolate laetrile from apricot seeds in the 1940s. According to the Krebs and their supporters, cancer is not caused by genetics, environment, or lifestyle; rather, it is the result of a vitamin deficiency. By this line of reasoning, to cure cancer one simply needs to reintroduce the necessary vitamin back into the body. Krebs, Jr., claimed to discover this missing vitamin, dubbing it Vitamin B17. His alleged cancer cure gained traction in the 1970s, inevitably attracting scrutiny from members of the medical and scientific communities.

Krebs, Jr., and his magical cancer cure raised several red flags. An exposé published in the June 26, 1977, edition of the New York Times revealed the so-called Dr. Krebs, Jr., had no medical degree. The extent of his formal scientific training was a tumultuous three years at Philadelphia’s Hahnemann Medical College where he was expelled twice. The article further revealed his highest degree was an honorary doctorate from American Christian College, a now defunct small Evangelical Christian college based in Tulsa, OK, that did not issue doctorates at all.

Krebs’ decision to characterize laetrile as a vitamin rather than a pharmaceutical appeared to be an attempt to circumvent the rigorous testing required for pharmaceutical products to get federal approval, and a 1977 report from the Food and Drug Administration accused him of doing just that. The American Institute of Nutrition Vitamins does not recognize B17 as a vitamin; it is more accurate to consider it a supplement, and supplements, unlike pharmaceuticals, are not subject to rigorous scrutiny before going to market. Current FDA regulations place the onus on a supplement’s manufacturer to ensure the product is safe and does what the product’s marketing claims it does.

Scientifically speaking, there is no evidence that laetrile is a useful or effective cancer treatment. In fact, the evidence suggests the opposite as laetrile, when taken in high enough quantities, especially when taken orally, can cause cyanide poisoning. A study reported in the January 28, 1982, issue of The New England Journal of Medicine tested laetrile treatment on 178 cancer patients. The study reported it offered no therapeutic benefits and, citing the risk of cyanide poisoning, concluded, “Amygdalin (laetrile) is a toxic drug that is not effective as a cancer treatment.” In the 2010s, the Cochrane Collaboration, an independent non-profit medical research firm, examined over 200 separate studies investigating laetrile treatment. In a 2015 report, the organization concluded there were no discernible benefits in laetrine/amygdalin as a cancer treatment, and its cyanide toxicity made it more harmful than helpful:

“The claims that laetrile or amygdalin have beneficial effects for cancer patients are not currently supported by sound clinical data. There is a considerable risk of serious adverse effects from cyanide poisoning after laetrile or amygdalin, especially after oral ingestion. The risk-benefit balance of laetrile or amygdalin as a treatment for cancer is therefore unambiguously negative.” Miazzo S and Horneber M, “Laetrile Treatment for Cancer (Review),” The Cochrane Library (2015), No 4.

However, some of laetrile treatment’s supporters see something more sinister afoot. G. Edward Griffin, a self-proclaimed journalist, filmmaker, and author of World Without Cancer: The Story of Vitamin B17 accused the Food and Drug Administration, the American Medical Association, the American Cancer Society, and the National Cancer Institute of deliberately suppressing the clinical benefits of laetrile treatment, collaborating with drug companies who financially benefit from the status quo. Claims of government/corporate suppression of the “real” cancer cure are widespread on the internet.

The Food & Drug Administration outlawed Laetrile in 1980. Those who attempt it today have to either travel outside the US or have it smuggled into the country.

If you’re looking for more information on the controversy surrounding Vitamin B17, a July 17, 2017, article for Buzzfeed addressed the topic in detail.

Until next time, catch you on the strange side!

The Karabots Junior Fellows Study Addiction

Students in the Karabots Junior Fellows program examine planarians in petri dishes.

Teen Health Week℠ (April 6-12, 2020) is a week devoted to raising awareness of the unique health issues facing teens. Among the core themes of Teen Health Week℠ is Substance Use and Misuse, addressing the impact of various substances on teens and how overuse or misuse can lead to addiction. One of our key goals in The Center for Education of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia is to address the themes of Teen Health Week with the students in our youth programs and give them the tools to help make healthy life choices that will benefit them through their entire lives.

Recently, the students of the Karabots Junior Fellows Program met with Helene Khalid, PhD, an expert in studying substance use and addiction. Dr. Khalid is a clinical postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Substance Abuse Research at Temple University School of Medicine, where she and her colleagues are examining the physiological effects of substance use. Dr. Khalid shared her research with our students and explained to them the impact of different chemicals on the brain and how different substances such as alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, and opioids can lead to dependency and addiction. For example, opioids trigger a rush of dopamine in the brain, resulting in a feeling of euphoria. Prolonged usage causes people to develop a tolerance to the substance, requiring higher doses to trigger the same effect as their initial exposure. This continuous use and growing chemical tolerance can lead to a chemical dependency.

More than telling them about these concepts, Dr. Khalid allowed the Junior Fellows to apply their newfound knowledge for themselves. Breaking them into small groups, the students conducted experiments on planarians, a species of flatworm that are commonly used in scientific testing. Each student received a planarian, exposed it to different levels of substances, and monitored its reaction. The substances they tested included caffeine and sugar, and different concentrations of these substances triggered different reactions. As they exposed their subjects to different chemical levels, Dr. Khalid challenged them to predict how the planarians would react based on their observations and test their predictions through experimentation and observation.

Students in the Karabots Junior Fellows program examine planarians in petri dishes.

For more information on Teen Health Week℠, including educational resources and ways to get involved, check out our website and follow us on Instagram (@teenhealthweek).

CPP Curiosities: Bad Medicine, Part One: Krebiozen

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Greetings, again, fellow historico-medico aficionados, and welcome to the latest installment of CPP Curiosities, our (semi) regular segment on all things thought provoking from the history of medicine. Past installments have run the gamut, from baseball legend Ted Williams’ cryogenically frozen remains, to the Greek demi-god of medicine who defeated death, to graverobbing after graverobbing after graverobbing.

On November 5, 2019, The Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia unveiled a brand new exhibit examining cancer biology. Mixed Signals: A Study of Cancer addresses how cancer behaves, common cancer types, the three most common forms of treatment, and ways to help reduce your risk. The exhibit was created by students in the fifth cohort of The Karabots Junior Fellows Program, a three-year summer and after-school program for Philadelphia high school students interested in careers in healthcare and medicine. The exhibit was part of a joint program with Swarthmore College to teach the public about cell signalling and cellular miscommunication and was made possible through a grant from The National Science Foundation. Students in the Karabots program also designed a complimentary lesson designed to teach middle school students about the ways cancer behaves and the relationship between cell signaling and cancer.

Main exhibit label for Mixed Signals: A Study of Cancer

The three most common forms of cancer treatment are colloquially known as “slash, burn, poison,” referring to surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy. But what if I told you that you can treat yours or a love one’s cancer without resorting to surgery, medication, or radiation? Maybe there’s a magic pill that can cure cancer with none of the side effects of mainstream treatments? Maybe illness is just a state of mind, one we can counteract with the right degree of positive thinking? All this and more are out there for you…for a price.

Our students’ diligent efforts to learn about cancer inspired me to do some cancer research of my own. This led me down a research rabbit hole of cancer treatments and cures that are, for lack of a better term, not legitimate. It may come as no surprise that there is a long history of people peddling false or unproven cancer cures, taking advantage of cancer patients and their loved ones desperate for a miracle.

Alleged miracle cancer cures take on many forms, from supposedly natural supplements, to synthetic chemicals, to hitherto undiscovered anti-cancer agents hidden in the body, or even magical cancer-killing machines. However, their advocates share some notable similarities regardless of their angle. Most argue that cancer has some simple root cause that has hitherto eluded physicians, a root cause that has a simple chemical or mechanical solution. That solution specifically targets the cancer, quickly and easily destroying it with absolutely no side effects. Moreover these techniques have been known for years; however, their use is being suppressed deliberately by mainstream medical organizations, governments, pharmaceutical corporations, or a legion of other confederates who withhold the truth so they can profit from the suffering of cancer patients.

So, with in mind, join me for a journey through some spurious scientists, miracle-pushing machinists, and dubious doctors in a series I am calling Bad Medicine.

Bad Medicine: Episode One, Krebiozen

Image Source: Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia

In the late 1940s, Yugoslavian physician Stevan Durovic claimed to develop a miraculous cancer cure while living in Argentina. His chemical, initially dubbed “substance X” and later renamed Krebiozen, was allegedly derived from a substance extracted from horse blood. According to Durovic, cancer was caused by a lack of this mysterious “Krebiozen” substance in the body, and adding more either through pills or injections caused cancer cells to shrink.

He brought his supposed miracle cure to the United States in 1951 and established the Krebiozen Research Foundation in Chicago, Illinois. There he developed some powerful local connections, including U.S. Senator Paul Douglas and Dr. Andrew C. Ivy. Ivy was a prominent cancer research scientist, a former medical adviser for the prosecution at the Nuremberg Hearings who claimed credit for developing the Nuremberg Code for medical experimentation on human test subjects, and Vice President of the University of Illinois. Ivy became Durovic’s gateway into the mainstream medical community, introducing his alleged cure to the world in a 1951 press event. Douglas, meanwhile, managed to secure Durovic, his brother, and their families permanent residency in the United States.

However, such bold claims inevitably attracted scrutiny. In 1959, the National Cancer Institute with endorsements from the American Cancer Society and the American Medical Association called upon Durovic to allow researchers to test the drug’s efficacy. Durovic long asserted that the development of Krebiozen was a closely-guarded secret, which is often a red flag when it comes to medical research as many studies rely on reporting findings so other scientists can verify a study’s claims. Researchers later concluded that Krebiozen was nothing more than mineral oil containing creatine monohydrate, a naturally-occurring substance responsible for muscle growth (today creatine supplements are frequently used by people with muscle growth deficiencies or in bodybuilding).

In 1965, Durovic, his brother Marko, Ivy, and Dr. William F.P. Phillips were brought up on 42 counts of fraud as well as other charges related to the manufacture, sale, and use of their phony cancer cure. While a jury acquitted them of all charges in January 1966, the FDA banned interstate transportation of Krebiozen outside of Illinois and the Illinois legislature banned its sale in 1973. Once a prominent physician, Ivy’s reputation never recovered. (For more on the FDA’s investigation, there is this fascinating account by former FDA lawyer William Goodrich, pgs. 41-47.

For more information on the Krebiozen case, see this September 15, 2018, overview in The Chicago Tribune and this August 26, 2017, Washington Post article on FDA scientist Alma Levant Hayden, who scientifically proved Krebiozen was a fraud.

With that, our first installment of Bad Medicine is in the books. I hope you’ll tune in for our journey to find the “real” cure for cancer.

Until next time, catch you on the strange side!

Mixed Signals: A New Exhibit at the Mütter Museum

Main exhibit label for Mixed Signals: A Study of Cancer

If you haven’t visited The Mütter Museum in a while, this fall is a nice time for a return to The Birthplace of American Medicine. On October 17, 2019, The Mütter Museum unveiled Spit Spreads Death: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19 in Philadelphia, a large new exhibit examining the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, how it affected Philadelphians, and the ways the deadliest outbreak in human history influenced public health to this day.

This month, students in the The Karabots Junior Fellows program made their own addition to the Museum. Mixed Signals: A Study of Cancer offers Museum visitors an overview of cancer, how cancer behaves, various ways it is treated, and ways you can help reduce your risk. The exhibit was a joint program between The Center for Education of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and Swarthmore College and was made possible through a grant from The National Science Foundation.

It was the product of a year’s worth of careful planning and meticulous research by students in the fifth cohort of The Karabots Junior Fellows program. We have covered the exploits of the Karabots students numerous times here. For the uninitiated, The Karabots Junior Fellows Program is a three-year after-school and summer internship program for Philadelphia high school students from underserved communities with an interest in pursuing careers in healthcare, medicine, and science.

The project began in August 2018 with an intensive two-week summer program where the students built up their knowledge of cancer and cell signaling. Brad Davidson, Associate Professor of developmental biology at Swarthmore, and his student assistant, Allie Naganuma, taught our students how cells grow and develop by sending and receiving signals. If these signals are disrupted through mutations, cellular miscommunication can lead to an overgrowth of abnormal cells. These abnormal cells build up over time to form tumors. If they are not detected and treated early, these growths can affect how the body works, eventually spreading to other parts of the body and adversely affecting a person’s health. The Karabots students also met with experts in a variety of related fields, including cancer biology, pathology, and treatment; biomedical research; hospice and palliative care; physical therapy; and mental health. Their work over the summer gave them the necessary tools to tackle such a complex subject and apply their knowledge to and share what they learned with others.

Students in the Karabots Junior Fellows Program take part in an activity about cancer biology by assembling walls made of Legos

When the students met for their weekly sessions for the 2018-2019 school year, we divided them into two teams: Exhibit and Outreach. The exhibit team worked together to select materials from The College’s collection, including biological specimens and medical tools as well as physical and digital objects from the Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Over the course of the school year, they conducted research, drafted labels, and worked with professional exhibit designer Jordan Klein to bring their exhibit to life. The culmination of all their hard work was Mixed Signals: A Study of Cancer, which officially opened to the public on November 5, 2019.

Meanwhile, the Outreach team was hard at work distilling what they learned into a lesson designed to teach middle school students about cancer. Together they developed a presentation, created and tested interactive activities, and crafted a lesson plan. In Summer 2019, two of our students–Lamina and Chaka–traveled to Swarthmore to deliver their lesson to a middle school youth program. They also had the opportunity to mentor the newest cohort of Karabots Junior Fellows, delivering their cancer lesson to the new students later in the summer. The lesson, also called Mixed Signals: A Study of Cancer, is currently available to visiting field trips to The Mütter Museum (book your field trip today).

Lamina and Chaka, students in the Karabots Junior Fellows Program, deliver a lesson on cancer to students in the latest cohort in the program

Our students learned a great deal along the way. In addition to applying their medical learning, they strengthened their aptitude in valuable skills they can apply to any future career they pursue, including collaboration, independent study, and oral and written communications skills.

If you are thinking of visiting the Mütter Museum again or for the first time, be sure to see our new exhibits.