NEWS

From a wild cucumber brew to olive juice, the folk remedies keep appearing

People have been gathering olive leaves even from trees in the midst of the polluted city.n early 1952, Greece was struggling to emerge from the destruction of World War II and the ensuing civil war which brought poverty and suffering. Suddenly the news broke of a brew made from the root of the wild cucumber (Ecballium elaterium) that supposedly cured cancer. The nation was seized by mass hysteria, with crowds going out to uproot a weed that grew rampant in vacant lots, gardens and fields. «The root cures cancer and every other disease – until the fashion for it dies out as every other fashion,» wrote Kathimerini on February 13, 1952. Archbishop Michail of America was himself a victim of the quackery. Along with thousands of other Greeks out digging up the roots of the yellow bloomed-plant, they were unaware that «until now only one property of the plant is known – its laxative property,» wrote a Kathimerini journalist. «All the parts of the plant, particularly the fruit, are described as poisonous.» The scientific community was categorical. «A disease that is as serious, chronic and incurable as cancer gives rise to profiteers that prey on sick people seeking a cure after having been disappointed by the medical establishment,» wrote university professor Dr G. Papayiannopoulos. On February 25, the Supreme Health Council declared the consumption of the brew to be useless and hazardous. The General Health Directorate warned that there was no evidence of the plant’s therapeutic properties. «First there should be laboratory tests and clinical observations,» it said. As happens today, the greatest damage was done by the media. «It is extremely sad that the daily press has been promoting cures for cancer without any scientific basis,» said the council. Yet the Helios Encyclopedic Dictionary’s 390th issue contained an article by an S. Papadakis on the use of wild cucumber juice against cancer. Dr George Papanikolaou, known for his cancer research and as the inventor of the Pap test for cervical cancer, also came out in favor of the remedy. In the press, he was reported to be about to begin experiments with the remedy, although Papanikolaou himself said he would only do so if the «relevant Greek medical association reported that there had been encouraging results with cancer patients.» People were using the juice for just about every condition. In Pamfylla on the island of Lesvos, a 65-year-old man was reported to have used wild cucumber juice to «remove calluses from his feet, which had caused him to suffer for many years.» At the end of February 1952, rehearsals began at the Papaioannou Theater on Patission Street for a theatrical revue titled «Wild Cucumber.» The theme music from the play was heard daily on the radio. At a meeting of the Surgical Association in March, a Dr Spentzaris from Pirgos presented the case of a woman cancer patient whose condition had vastly improved after treatment with wild cucumber juice. Another doctor from the Cancer Institute claimed, however, that the cure had been effected by surgery. The findings were inconclusive. Georgiadis’s drug A few years later, in March 1955, a Thessaloniki drinks manufacturer by the name of Georgiadis claimed to have found a drug to cure cancer. However, two cancer patients who drank the concoction died suddenly and Thessaloniki police sent a sample of the drink to the coroner and Athens University’s toxicology laboratory, whose director, Professor Iliakis, found that the brew had no curative properties for cancer but was a mixture of wild cucumber, strawberry essence, sugar and alcohol. Georgiadis was charged with practicing medicine without a license. Kamateros’s water Twenty years later, a daily newspaper reported that a 36-year-old lawyer from the island of Kos, Giorgos Kamateros, claimed that the water of his home village, which he called «helion,» could cure cancer. He distributed the water in tanker trucks around Athens neighborhoods and around the countryside. «Huge headlines report daily that the water cures everything,» said a report in Kathimerini on March 14, «That it has brought an insane woman to her senses, restored the sight of a blind woman…» The medical world was up in arms and samples of the water were sent to Italy and Switzerland, where no curative properties were found. Yet Kamateros continued to claim that the secret lay in the minerals dissolved in the water by his colleagues (calcium, carbon and quartz, according to the Institute for Minerals and Mining Exploration). On February 18, the parents of 18 children being treated for leukemia and malignant tumors at the Aglaia Kyriakou Hospital stopped their treatment and gave their children Kamateros’s water. One of the children died, the conditions of the others deteriorated. Another death, a few days later, of a cancer patient a day after drinking the water brought an end to the story. Scientists found 35 to 28 percent levels of radiation in the water. Kamateros held rallies and marches with hundreds of supporters in tow. He was charged and the consumption of his water was banned. After his court cases were over, Kamateros went abroad for a time and then went into business. In 1998, 22 years after his initial notoriety, he returned to Kos, where on May 6, burdened by financial problems, he ended his life. Early in 2007, a state television channel announces the therapeutic powers of the juice of olive leaves and history repeats itself.