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December 08, 1991|Charles Solomon

THE GREAT AMERICAN MEDICINE SHOW by David Armstrong and Elizabeth Metzger Armstrong (Prentice Hall: $18, illustrated). The Armstrongs chronicle some of the nation's most outrageous health and fitness fads in this entertaining history. A few chapters focus on individuals who made significant contributions to the nation's health: Sylvester Graham (for whom the Graham cracker is named), C. W. Post and the Kellogg brothers changed American eating habits. Other topics, including chiropractic, homeopathy, faith healing and vegetarianism remain the subject of often heated debate among advocates, detractors and medical professionals. The most amusing sections catalogue the quack cures embraced by gullible Americans: phrenology, anti-fat elixirs, mesmerism and the myriad patent medicines that gave rise to the term "snake-oil salesman." The Armstrongs help to put the current fads for crash diets and vitamin overdoses in historical perspective, demonstrating that the era of dubious nostrums is far from over in the United States, despite the reverence accorded science and medicine.

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