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Oscillo: Old Mistakes, Modern Myths

In 1917, the Spanish flu killed off huge swathes of the population–more than the first world war had. It was terrifying, and everyone wanted a solution, right now. And Joseph Roy thought he had it.

When looking at the blood of flu patients, he noticed what appeared to be a wiggly–oscillating–bacteria, which he called oscillococcus. He claimed to have found the same wiggly stuff in those with herpes, measles, and chicken pox too, and, assured that all three had the same root cause, he found a cure!

Well…yes and no.

Influenza, chicken pox, measles and herpes are all caused by the same kind of thing: a virus–not a bacterium. (what Roy claimed to be the common thread). It could have been as simple a mistake as mixing up viruses and bacteria under a microscope–except the viruses that cause things like measles are too small to have been seen by Roy. (Nifty interactive comparison here)

We’re not really sure what Joseph Roy saw under the microscope–we haven’t been able to find it. But what we do know is that he’s left a lasting impact on medicine…and not a good one. How? Well, Roy decided to make a homeopathic vaccine out of the bacterium.


Muscovy Ducks–male on left, female on right.

After searching about for a source of his Oscillococcus, he believed he found it in the liver of Muscovy Ducks. The homeopathic dilution he developed goes by the name Oscillococcinum (often shortened to Oscillo), and is a fifteen million dollar industry in the United States. (Park, 2008). Luckily, it would defy physics, chemistry, and pharmacology to have any molecules of duck liver present in Oscillo, so we can assume no ducks have been harmed in the making of this medicine.

On the other hand, Oscillo has never been proven to have an impact over that of placebo, and certainly not the removal of flu symptoms in 48 hours it claims. (Boiron, the manufacturer, is facing a class-action lawsuit on this front.) As Carrie Poppy demonstrated, your local Poison Control will also tell you something along these lines.

So, if you do get sick? Stay in bed, drink lots of water, and do your research!

Featured image from here.


References: Robert Park, Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science. 

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Kate Donovan

Kate Donovan

Kate is an outspoken atheist, feminist, demisexual, stigma-busting student in Chicago studying psychology and human development. She juggles occasionally, would knit you something warm if she knew you, and reads anything she can get her hands on. She was raised believing alternative medicine worked, and now spends her time making skeptical faces at it. You can find her on Twitter at @donovanable


  1. January 28, 2013 at 9:27 pm —

    It is strange that he linked several virus-caused diseases correctly, and that he made a link to water fowl (which is a major source of primordial influenza virus). It is almost as though ancient astronauts had communicated with him, but the message was garble, probably by Bigfoot.

  2. February 4, 2013 at 3:29 pm —

    >we can assume no ducks have been harmed in the making of this medicine.

    Not so, unfortunately. In France, Boiron sacrifices one duck every year. It is pointless animal cruelty based on ignorance and greed.

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