• Sai Charan

That Time 'Anti-Comet Pills' Were Sold


The Times in the May of 1910 reported that a French astronomer by the name of Camille Flammarion predicted that as the Earth passed through the Halley's comet's tail in 1910, "Cyanogen gas would impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet". "Cyanogen is a very deadly poison, a grain of its potassium salt touched to the tongue being sufficient to cause instant death", Camille proclaimed in the newspaper. Earlier that year, Astronomers from around the world detected significant amounts of Cyanogen in the tail of Halley's comet using spectroscopy. To its credit, though, The Times noted that most astronomers did not agree with Camille's doomsday prediction.


Nevertheless, people started panicking. Religious superstitions did not help the situation either. Snakeoil salesmen took advantage of the panic and started selling "anti-comet pills". One such brand promised to be "an elixir for escaping the wrath of the heavens". Two Texan quacks who marketed sugar pills as the "cure-all for all things comet" were arrested by the police. However, the quacks had to be released due to pressure from their customers. Gas masks too ran out of stock. A Californian prospector nailed his feet and one hand to a cross in fears of the comet. Churches across Europe and America were packed with paranoid followers.


On the 19th day of May 1910, the comet's tail passed through Earth's atmosphere without any damage to human life or property. People in France and around the world danced and embraced in the streets after realizing that they've survived a "near apocalypse". Actually, France and the rest of the world were saved by reality. For billions of years, comets have come and gone, yet life still thrives on Earth. This instance highlights the need for scientific literacy among the masses. Many such superstitions and pseudosciences still exist around the world, even in the 21st century, in various forms such as Astrology, Feng Shui, Faith Healing, and Homeopathy.


Adapted from Fantastically Wrong: That Time People Thought a Comet Would Gas Us All to Death.