Back in 1952, shortly after Gilbert Cant, a former war correspondent and national-affairs writer, took over as TIME magazine's medicine editor, many sufferers from arthritis believed the best way to cure their ailment was to sit in a damp uranium mine. Cant poured scorn on the notion.
This week, beginning on page 37, Cant, now the nation's most distinguished writer on medical matters, discusses the lastest "fad" for curing one of the nation's most persistent plagues. In the years since he wrote that early piece. Cant has won two major awards from The Arthritis and Rheumatism Foundation for learned articles on the diseases that most concern that organization and a number of other prestigious awards for his reporting as well. But over those years, Cant's increasing knowledge has, paradoxically, made him less confident of his infallibility.
When our editors asked Cant, now retired but no less active as a journalist, to report on the copper bracelet fad for us, he quickly accepted. "If only," as he confessed later, "because it gave me a chance to tell all of you about my arthritis."
Over the last 30 years, according to Cant, he has suffered from at least one of four or more kinds of arthritis: "bursitis, symmetrically, in both shoulders; epicondylitis in both elbows; tenosynovitis in my knees, maybe some fibrositis; and certainly osteoarthritis in the hands.
"Doctors," says Cant, "have not been able to cure any of these, but they have made most of them bearable with cortisone taken orally, then injections of hydrocortisone, ultrasound and heat treatments, X-ray therapy and, of course, aspirin.
"What bothers me most now is the osteo, as we victims get to call it familiarly if not affectionately. And that is worst on Monday mornings, practically all year round, because I have a boat. From early spring on, I spend weekends working on that boat, doing jobs that require prolonged gripping with both hands, especially the right since I'm right-handed. In the summer I use the same hand grip for pulley-hauling and handling the tiller. By the end of June this year the discomfort was so great that I had to soak my hands in hot water every Monday on arising, and I was gobbling aspirin.
"It was on a Wednesday that I took this assignment from SI, and the first thing I did was go and buy a copper bracelet. Since I prefer my watch on the left wrist I put the bracelet on the right. For three days I noticed no difference. I worked my hands particularly hard that weekend. Then on Monday morning I woke to find no pain in my hands; no need for hot soaking or aspirin. I merely state the facts and offer no judgment.
"After a minor accident I was too busy treating a sore back to bother with the bracelet. My hands got worse. And the day I started actually writing this piece, the left hand was, surprisingly, worse than the right. Laughing at myself for even entertaining the idea, I moved the bracelet to the left wrist at noon. By dinner time the left hand was free of pain, though the right wasn't.
"Pure coincidence or pure copper? I don't know. I merely state the facts."