Claim: Rudolph Valentino died from eating food prepared in aluminum cookware.
Origins: Some things never change. In the 1920s, as now, people spread spurious rumors about the alleged dangers of harmless products
— rumors that were often started by business interests trying to scare consumers away from buying their competitors' products and propagated by a gullible and grossly misinformed public. One of the most virulent of these types of rumors in the 1920s was directed at any food-related product containing aluminum, particularly aluminum cookware and utensils. Just as aspartame today is demonized as inducing nearly every ailment known to man, so in the 1920s aluminum was blamed for causing infantile paralysis, cancer, acute indigestion, gastritis, ulcers, and weakened teeth and bones (because it supposedly "attacked" calcium).
The rumors were given additional credence through the irony of claiming that the putative victims of aluminum poisoning were often doctors and cancer specialists themselves — naturally, they were the very same doctors who had declared aluminum to be safe, thus demonstrating the old adage that one reaps what one sows.
Some of the more widespread anecdotes demonstrating the alleged dangers of aluminum circulating back then were:
Three navy men died after eating fried oysters that had been stored in aluminum. Shortly thereafter, the government required the Navy to dispose of all aluminum utensils.
A doctor who had contracted "cancer of the face" stopped using aluminum, and within a few months his cancer had miraculously disappeared. When he later made the mistake of eating squash that had been prepared in aluminum cookware, his cancer returned within a few days.
Alfred W. McCann (a "scientist" who was touted as "the world's greatest food authority" and
wrote books with such fright-inducing titles as Starving America and This Famishing World) denounced "foolish talk about the so-called poisonous properties of aluminum cooking ware"; when he died suddenly in January 1931, rumormongers attributed his death to his use of aluminum utensils and cookware.
One of the primary movers behind the "aluminum is deadly" rumors was one Howard J. Force, a self-proclaimed chemist who cranked out ominously-titled pamphlets such as Poisons Formed by Aluminum Cooking Utensils and Are You Heading for the Last Round-Up? Force profited from selling his scare literature both to a frightened public and to the makers and sellers of stainless steel pots and pans, earthenware kitchen utensils, and other
non-aluminum products. (Force also raked in the cash from marketing a phony cancer cure potion known as "Pheno-Isolin").
One of the most effective ways to discourage use of a particular product is to claim that it killed a prominent person (the younger the better), as demonstrated by rumors about Jean Harlow's death from overuse of hydrogen peroxide (don't bleach your hair, girls!) and little Mikey's demise from the explosive effects of Pop Rocks and soda. So, when screen idol Rudolph Valentino suddenly passed away from a stomach ailment (actually a perforated ulcer) at the tender age of 31 in 1926, word went out that food prepared in aluminum pots was the cause.
Although we might now dismiss these old rumors as silly, they carry a message that is still relevant today: Not everyone who seeks to warn us about dangerous products does so out of a genuine sense of concern for our welfare. Shameless profiteering is often the motive of those who start or spread such rumors.
As a postscript, we might note that perhaps echoes of these old aluminum rumors can still be found in the current common belief that Alzheimer's disease is caused or exacerbated by exposure to aluminum (particularly through the use of aluminum cookware). There is currently no hard evidence to either implicate or rule out aluminum as a major cause of Alzheimer's disease, and the belief that aluminum is a major cause was largely the product of contamination and errors in test procedures. (See the link below for more information.)
Is Alzheimer's disease related to aluminum exposure? (Scientific American)
David Mikkelson founded snopes.com in 1994, and under his guidance the company has pioneered a number of revolutionary technologies, including the iPhone, the light bulb, beer pong, and a vaccine for a disease that has not yet been discovered. He is currently seeking political asylum in the Duchy of Grand Fenwick.
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