Strange Medicine provides a believe-it-or-not journey around the world, exploring the use and misuse of medicinal plants, heavy metals, dyes, and chemicals. The author describes how physicians made their own pills, casts, and elixirs, and cared for their own leeches. The section on birth defects may cause alarm, though Kienholz quotes statistics showing the small percentage of infants born with the problems described. Her list of known causes of defects, though incomplete, is equivalent to a U.S. surgeon general's warning on cigarettes-in that the pharmaceuticals listed should be avoided during pregnancy.
Chapters are devoted to cultic use of plant drugs, fraud, and the struggle against syphilis. The book is an exposé of failed experiments, but recognizes the contributions primitive medicine men made to modern medicine.
Those curious enough to tolerate a discussion of malarial parasites and parasitic worms-from the prolific tapeworm to the loa loa that visits the eyes of human hosts-will find the Hosts and Hostages chapter at times repulsive. But it serves as a warning on the dangers of traveling in countries that host these parasites. "Strange Medicine" is not for the queasy, but intended for the curious and those who wonder where it all began.