Book Review: Chicken Soup & Other Folk Remedies

December 6, 2003


Authors: Joan Wilen and Lydia Wilen
Publisher: Fawcett Columbine, New York
Reviewed by: Varro E. Tyler, Ph.D.

Recently, this attractively packaged paperback caught my eye as I browsed through a bookstore’s healthcare section. I picked it up and, as usual, first turned to the back to learn the qualifications of the authors. There 1 was informed that Joan Wilen was named for her father’s cousin, the town hypochondriac, and her sister Lydia was named for her mother’s aunt, the town herbalist and midwife. For these reasons, they felt “particularly qualified” to write this book. The Wilen sisters’ background in the home remedy field was equally revealing: “As soon as we signed the contract for Chicken Soup and Other Folk Remedies, we went to all our relatives, asking for their home remedies.” Let’s take a random look at some of the information they gathered in this way. The comments in brackets are mine.

Page 3: Alfalfa seed “is very high in . . . vitamins A, E, K, B-8, D and U:’ [There are no such things as vitamin B-8, or vitamin U.]

Page 11: “Comfrey is also called knitbone because from the time of the Crusaders, the leaves were used for repairing and drawing fractured bone segments back together.” [It may have been used to reduce the swelling and inflammation around a broken bone, but not to heal the bone itself.]

Page 26: “Strawberries. .. contain… salacin, which soothes inflammatory conditions:’ [I assume the authors mean the anti-inflammatory compound salicin. Authorities deny its presence in strawberries.]

Page 59: “Eat 2 ripe bananas a day to chase the blues away. Bananas contain the chemicals serotonin and norepinephrine, which are believed to help prevent mental depression:’ [These compounds are not active when taken by mouth.]

Page 61: “Sage tea also helps strengthen one’s brain and memori’ [Other references list more than 60 ailments for which sage is claimed to be therapeutic. The only proven use of sage is as a flavor, especially in turkey dressing.]

Page 63: “Jerusalem artichokes. . . have been said to help stimulate the production of insulin:’ [Who said so? They may have been said to help, but they don’t.]

Page 89: “Bee pollen contains a combination of male and female hormones.” [It actually contains neither. ]

Page 92: “Licorice has female hormones in it.” [Not so!]

Page 127: “When the prostate gland is inflamed, apply a watercress poultice to reduce the inflammation:’ [Just where should this poultice be applied? The prostate is, to say the least, rather inaccessible.]

Page 151: “A Pennsylvania man. . . rid himself of body odor by taking 30 mg of zinc every day. Within two weeks, he was smelling like a rose.” [Of course, since the zinc had no effect, it must be presumed that he supple-mented it with rose water baths.]

It is not possible to list here all of the factual errors I noted on first reading. The Wilen sisters admit on page xi they are not authorities, even though one did date a pharmacist and the other enjoys Doc Simon’s plays. This being the case, one can only wonder why they would risk tampering with people’s health and why their publisher would do the same. Stick to humor, ladies. You’re not bad at it, but label your efforts as such.


Dr. Tyler, who died in 2001, was the Lilly distinguished professor of pharmacognosy (the science of medicines from natural sources) at Purdue University. A world-renowned authority, he wrote The Honest Herbal, an evaluation of popular herbs, and was senior author of the textbook Pharmacognosy. This review was published in the June 1985 issue of Nutrition Forum Newsletter.

Note from Dr. Stephen Barrett: A revised edition was published in 2000. I haven’t read the revised book, but its table of contents (posted on Amazon Books) indicates that the revision makes many unsubstantiated claims.

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This article was posted on December 6, 2003.