‘Soothing and balmy, cure without disfigurement:’ Benjamin F. Bye, false promises, and head and neck cancer
One century ago, patients dreaded a diagnosis of head and neck cancer, fearing not only the progression of the disease but also the prospect of surgery. A cadre of charlatans preyed upon these fears to make a profit, traveling from town to town and giving speeches with the guarantee of cure without disfigurement.
By Jennifer Xu, BS, Andrew Shuman, MD, University of Michigan, Department of Otolaryngology One century ago, patients dreaded a diagnosis of head and neck cancer, fearing not only the progression of the disease but also the prospect of surgery. A cadre of charlatans preyed upon these fears to make a profit, traveling from town to town and giving speeches with the guarantee of cure without disfigurement. The tale of Indianapolis head and neck surgeon Benjamin F. Bye is representative of the charlatanism rampant in this time period. Bye peddled the Combination Oil Cure, a collection of four aromatic and soothing creams intended to be applied to the face and burned away. Bye touted the oils as a fail-safe way to cure cancers of the head and neck. Supposedly, the oils had the capability of absorbing the “embryonic cancer cells,” while preserving adjacent healthy tissue. The most appealing attribute of Bye’s treatment was its promise of cure without aesthetic disfigurement or undue risk. “The knife, even in the hands of the most skilled operators, proves as deadly as the disease” was a mantra the Bye advertisements often repeated, and promised an easy alternative to surgical intervention. Bye eventually came under the fire of muckraker Samuel Hopkins Adams, who published a series on the patent medicine business in the national magazine Collier’s Weekly. One of these articles focused on Bye and denounced him as a “cancer vampire,” who preyed on the psyches of unsuspecting patients. Not long thereafter, Bye’s practice was declared fraudulent by the national government, and the U.S. Postmaster General refused to send his products. Bye’s story offers a window into the psyche of patients who will go to any lengths for an easy fix, and recalls a time in which oncologic treatments were almost as deadly as the diseases they intended to cure. Today, as our treatment armamentarium continues to grow, we must be ever-vigilant in presenting options with objectivity, recognizing both the vulnerability of our patients as well as the inherent uncertainty of emerging treatment modalities. The Bye tale reminds us to be careful of not creating the balmy oil of the 21st century, and ensure that charlatanism remains a shadow of the past. Presented at the 2014 Otolaryngology Historical Society Annual Meeting, Orlando FL, September 2014. Citation: Xu J, Shuman AG. Soothing and balmy, cure without disfigurement: Benjamin Bye, false promises, and head and neck cancer. Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2015 Apr;152(4):594-597.