What William Radam’s “Microbe Killer” can teach us about modern stem cell quackery

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David Weinberghttps://sciencebasedmedicine.org/author/david-weinberg/
David Weinberg is an academic physician and Professor of Ophthalmology at the Medical College of Wisconsin. He has also been an occasional contributor at Science-Based Medicine.

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In 1886 a gardener living in Austin Texas was issued a U.S. patent for “a new and Improved Fumigating Composition for Preserving and Purifying Purposes.” The elixir was said to “kill all fungus, germs, parasites, and other matter producing fermentation or decay.”

Despite the fact his patent did not mention human consumption, the gardener, William Radam, was convinced he had invented the remedy to all the ills of mankind.

Image from: Ricks Bottle Room
https://poisonsnmore.webs.com/radamsmicrobekiller.htm And old advert for "WM RADAMS MICROBE KILLER" which is listed as "germ, bacteria or fungus destroyer" with a "Registered trade-mark Dec 13 1887" In the centre of the black advert, a skeleton stands with its hands up as a man swings a bat at it. The bat is labelled "microbe killer".
Image from: Ricks Bottle Room

He was motivated, in part, by desire to cure his own malaria and by the early death of two of his children. He had no particular education in medicine or pharmacology but was inspired by the foundational research of scientists like Pasteur and Koch in formulating germ theory. Radam extrapolated contemporary science to conclude that all disease was due to microbes. Fortunately for mankind, he had created a universal antiseptic; the cure to all disease.

He sold the concoction as “Radam’s Microbe Killer.” If his claim to “cure all diseases” was extravagant, his trademark was equally audacious: An image of a man in a business suit wielding a club, prevailing in mortal combat with death, depicted as a scythe-wielding skeleton.

I first learned of Radam and his microbe killer through my hobby of collecting antique medical artifacts. The highly-prized Radam’s signature bottle is boldly embossed with : “GERMS BACTERIA OR FUNGUS DESTROYER” and the humble slogan “CURES ALL DISEASES” as well as the death-match between our club-wielding hero and the grim reaper.

Image from: Ricks Bottle Room
https://poisonsnmore.webs.com/radamsmicrobekiller.htm the glass bottle as described in the text
Image from: Ricks Bottle Room

He made the case for his remedy in his book, Microbes – The Microbe Killer.  The book lays out his interpretation of germ theory, complete with numerous photomicrographs of microbes. He explains his rationale and process for concocting the Microbe Killer formula.

He has much to criticise about the contemporary medicine of his day. Chapter 7 is entitled “Failure of Medical Science”. Not surprisingly, he attributes all the failure of the practice of medicine to the fact that they lacked the vision to embrace his singular philosophy of disease and cure:

All medicines that are employed to – day, whether inorganic or organic , should be antiseptics — that is, agents capable of preventing fermentation .

He was not optimistic that mainstream medicine would soon become “woke” to his enlightened view of medicine:

I have no fear that the many able, learned, and progressive men that the medical profession numbers among its members will read these strictures as applying to them.

The book is replete with testimonials of miraculous results, including his personal rejuvenation:

Six months after I had taken the first dose of microbe – killer I felt myself entirely cured of the rheumatism. There were no more pains whatever of any kind. The fever had also entirely gone, and the piles were gradually disappearing and were almost well. I then weighed one hundred and forty – four pounds, and had the appearance presented in the picture from a photo graph. My weight now is two hundred and five pounds.

Mr. Radam’s concoction was an international commercial success. There were 17 factories across the U.S. He became a wealthy man. His success enabled him to move from Austin, Texas to a Fifth Avenue mansion in Manhattan.

William Radam: A man of his time

Although no one scientist can be given sole credit for germ theory, Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch were heavy hitters. Pasteur’s seminal work on the subject took place mostly in 1860’s. By the time Radam patented his Microbe Killer in 1886, germ theory was becoming established science, and was in the public’s consciousness. Although germ theory had great explanatory power, therapeutic victories were mostly unrealised. Penicillin would not be discovered for another four decades.

Radam was a layperson when it came to advanced biology, but he was able to “talk-the-talk” of the relevant science with sufficient confidence that he could persuade the lay public. Public awareness of germ theory and Radam’s ability to speak and write credibly on the subject likely contributed to the acceptance and success of the Microbe Killer. Whether Radam’s promiscuous interpretation of germ theory was sincere belief or a marketing strategy is a matter for speculation.

The other relevant fact of the era was the lack of regulation for medications. The government’s first earnest attempt to regulate drugs was the The Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906. This regulated truth in labeling of ingredients, but had no authority over safety, efficacy, or therapeutic claims.

Critics and skeptics

Despite the lack of a legal regulatory framework over quack medicine, Dr Radam did have critics and legal challenges. R. G. Eccles, a physician and pharmacist, analysed the Microbe Killer solution and concluded it was water laced with small amounts of hydrochloric and sulfuric acid. Radam hired the famous Robert Ingersoll as his legal counsel. There were libel suits and countersuits back and forth between Radam and Eccles. Each had successes and failures in the courts, but in the court of public opinion Eccles academic exposure of Radam was no match for Radam’s salesmanship.

Radam died in 1902, but the company continued successfully for many years under the ownership of his widow. His business was one of many hawking worthless remedies during this time.

In1912 legislation was passed as a remedy to the weaknesses of the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906. Known as the Sherley Amendment, the new regulation prohibited labeling with “false and fraudulent” therapeutic claims. The Microbe Killer was one of the first medicines prosecuted under the new law. In 1913 a jury found that the Microbe Killer violated the Sherley Amendment. The government destroyed a shipment of the remedy confiscated from a rail car, signaling the beginning of the end Mr Radam’s company.

New Science, old story

The story of the rise of Radam’s Microbe killer is not just an interesting story, it is an archetype for a narrative replayed in modern history. A budding new science, a public primed for anticipated “modern miracles”, and a vacuum in regulation creates fertile ground for charlatans to flourish.

Flash forward over 100 years. Stem cell research provides a window to greater understanding of developmental biology. The ability to manipulate and harness stem cells opens the possibility of new therapeutic modalities for a multitude of human maladies. The hype around stem cells has create not just hope, but the expectation of miraculous cures.

Despite steady progress, stem cells have not yet ended human disease or suffering.  In fact, rigorously validated stem cell treatments are few. Despite limited evidence, a for-profit stem cell industry has grown and flourished.

A commercial stem cell clinic in Florida garnered unwanted attention due to a 2017 New England Journal of Medicine article entitled “Vision Loss after Intravitreal Injection of Autologous “Stem Cells” for AMD.” The article described tragic complications and loss of vision among 3 women treated for age-related macular degeneration. The specific Florida clinic, U.S. Stem Cell, was not named in the article, but was quickly identified by reporters, as well as lawyers for some of the patients.

Kristen Comella, the chief scientific officer for the clinic at the time was a vocal evangelist for stem cell treatments. In a video interview, she is articulate, passionate, and charismatic. Her interview responses strike many of the same notes as did Mr. Radam in his book. She is conversant in the language of stem cell science and able to communicate credibly on the subject. Like Mr Radam she is expansive in extrapolating the benefits of stem cell therapies far beyond established science.

There are lots of anecdotes, including personal testimonials of her own response to stem cells. There seems to be no condition or route of administration unexplored. She testified to personally receiving stem cells injected intravenously for general health, injected in her joints for athletic performance, injected in her vaginal wall for stress incontinence, and injected in her clitoris for sexual rejuvenation. She has treated multiple family members including her father, her husband, and her teenage son, the latter of whom received intravenous stem cells as a treatment for acne.

There are emotional anecdotes about near miraculous results in patients afflicted with truly tragic diseases. She expresses exuberant confidence in stem cell treatment for an astonishing variety of conditions, including: arthritis, degenerative disc disease, type 1 and type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer, ALS, Parkinson disease, traumatic brain injury, multiple sclerosis, Lyme disease, autoimmune disease, COPD, myocardial infarction, and kidney disease.

She has some very strong views on stem cells for traumatic brain injury, and opines that professional (American) football players should receive stem cell infusions as “standard of care”:

Every Monday morning after their game on Sunday they should be getting a stem cell treatment. This should be standard of care…it can prevent the damage and the scar tissue from forming in the brain.

She also believed that, in general:

“Any organ or tissue inside the body that needs healing to have going on can be used with these cells because we are going to promote healing inside that tissue.”

It’s not quite as pithy as Mr. Radam’s “cures all diseases,” but a kindred sentiment.

Comella, like Radam before her, is critical of the medical establishment for its failure to share her expansive embrace of stem cell therapies.

U.S. Stem Cell specialised in use of stem cells derived from the patients’ own liposuction, but there are hundreds of for-profit clinics in the USA peddling all manner of stem cell treatments. A report based on a systematic internet survey published in 2016 discovered 570 direct-to-consumer stem cell clinics in the USA.  These clinics offer treatments with so-called stem cells from a variety of sources for a highly diverse spectrum of conditions.

The commercial stem cell industry operates within a gray-area in the US regulatory environment. In general, the commercial stem cell industry claimed that they were exempt from policies of US Food and Drug Association (FDA) used to regulate drugs and biologic agents.

The FDA issued clarifications of its policies and issued blanket warnings about commercial stem cells, but mostly avoided direct action against individual stem cell providers. That pattern was broken in 2017, when they inspected the aforementioned U.S. Stem Cell clinic in Florida. In a subsequent report, the FDA enumerated a number of specific violations of standards. They declared that the treatment the clinic was selling met the regulatory definition of a drug. As such, the clinic was engaged in unauthorised use of an unapproved drug. The clinic protested and defied the FDA. Ultimately the FDA prevailed through the courts. In 2019 a federal judge upheld the FDA ruling that the clinic was in violation of the law.

After the intervention of the federal judiciary, U.S. Stem Cell finally backed away from their liposuction-derived stem cell treatments. Dr. Comella and U.S. Stem Cell subsequently parted ways. Although the assertions of the FDA and rulings of the court were narrow and specific to the practices of this particular clinic in Florida, I believe these decisions did motivate other stem cell clinics to reassess their own practices and claims. There is still a thriving commercial stem cell industry in the U.S., but they have largely backed away from liposuction-derived stem cell treatments that attracted the attention of the FDA and the federal court.

The parallels between Dr. Radam and the modern commercial stem cell industry are striking.

  1. An emerging science captures the attention of the public. Expectations for medical breakthroughs are high.
  2. The slow advance of science cannot keep pace with expectation and hunger for new and better treatments.
  3. A few, representing themselves as the vanguard of science, make seductive claims, far exceeding the bounds of contemporary evidence-based science.
  4. The regulators struggle to keep pace in the new frontier, leaving the public vulnerable.

William Radam’s remedy of yesteryear and today’s commercial stem cell industry are instructive cases, but not the only examples of this paradigm. In the latter half of the 19th century there were numerous devices promising to harness the power of the then “modern miracle” of electricity. Look up Boyd’s Battery and Davis and Kidders Magneto-Electric Machine as fine examples.

In the end, germ theory did greatly diminish human disease and suffering through antisepsis, antibiotics, and vaccines. Despite his lofty claims and bogus remedy, Mr Radam contributed nothing. It remains to be seen if the enthusiasm of stem cell treatment “early adopters” is prescient or premature.

Further Reading

References on William Radam:

I have written more extensively on U.S. Stem Cell and the tragic results of the patients treated for macular degeneration in a 3 part series at Science Based Medicine: part 1, part 2, and part 3.

Consumer Information on Stem Cells

  • The International Society for Stem Cell Research has excellent information for consumers on their website.
  • The Niche is a blog run by stem cell researcher Paul Knoepfler, who is an advocate for ethical stem cell practices.
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