Fill Me In: How Botox Became a Beloved Toxin

From its origin as a deadly toxin in fast food, to a polarizing beauty procedure, to a miraculous migraine cure, botulinum toxin has come a long way.

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Jan 11 2016, 5:50pm

Image by KKGas / Stocksy

Botox (or botulinum toxin) is a polarizing substance if there ever was one: Many people have standing appointments with their supplier of choice to assure the fountain of youth never runs out, while others swear up and down they'll never touch it — or rather, that Botox will never touch them. Botox has had its ups and downs in popularity: from its start as a poisonous, misunderstood substance that killed, to it's heyday in the 90's when cosmetic practitioners couldn't keep it in supply. "Botox Is The New Black," claimed the headline of nearly every magazine, and perhaps they were right.

The history of Botox is long and winding, and its uses are much more varied than many people understand.

The discovery of botulinum toxin

The first time botulinum toxin appeared on anyone's radar, its cosmetic properties were entirely unknown; actually, its original use was far from beautiful. In 1820, after several dozen Germans died (apparently after ingesting improperly prepared blood sausages), a scientist named Justinus Kerner decided there must be a more compelling cause.

During his research, in which he conducted experiments on leftovers, he discovered that food poisoning and subsequent neurological symptoms were due to improperly canned food, and he even injected himself with botulinum toxin to research and develop potential treatments. Kerner's studies lead to the first clinical definition of botulism.

Later in the 19th century, Émile van Ermengem discovered the bacterial source of the toxin and isolated it for further research. This was happening at a time when food-canning industry was growing, and botulism was becoming a huge health hazard to the public. Van Ermengem's research was the catalyst necessary to begin solving the problem; a team lead by Karl F. Meyer at the Hooper Foundation in San Francisco became dedicated to isolating, extracting, and inactivating the toxin, and they soon succeeded, thus preserving the integrity of the entire canning industry and preventing the poisonings of thousands of people.

First practical uses

In the 1950's, Dr. Vernon Brooks discovered that small amounts of botulinum toxin, if injected, could temporarily relax a muscle. Another man by the name of Dr. Alan B. Scott soon began experimenting on monkeys, as scientists unfortunately do, and discovered that botulinum toxin had the ability to aid with uncrossing crossed eyes. This was the first step toward botulinum toxin becoming the huge help in treating muscular disorders that it is today. However, he also realized that it left patients wide-eyed, which noticeably reduced wrinkles.

Botox for beauty

When it was first discovered that Botox could be injected at the hands of a skilled cosmetic surgeon to erase frown-lines, laugh-lines, and everything in between, there was such a demand for it that supply completely dried up — literally. In 1997, when Manhattan's supply finally caught back up with demand, the New York Times published a piece titled "Drought Over, Botox Is Back."

This was the beginning of an era—an era during which everyone would develop their own opinion about Botox, regardless of whether or not they deigned to try it for themselves. During the early years, most people didn't cop to the deed. Before feminism became a more mainstream concept, it was much more common even than it is now to openly judge a woman for her beauty choices. Tabloid magazines had a field day every time a woman stepped out, her face looking a bit more plump, a bit more round than her last outing.

These days, things have changed slightly. We sometimes see women posting Instagrams from their doctor's offices, selfies mid-procedure, or before and after shots when they've had any cosmetic work done, whatever the reason. Though we often still speculate on the appearances of these women, the body-positive shift and the transparency they're choosing to exhibit with their followers is a positive thing.

A toxin that treats

Botox has many life-changing, practical applications beyond alteration of our facades. It can be used to understand the specific mechanism of eye muscle disorders through EMG-guided injections, during which the patient suffering from a disorder such as strabismus undergoes a local anesthetic and doctors observe the eye to gain insight to which individual muscles are contributing to the problem.

The versatile stuff has also been used in treatment of other muscle-related disorders as well, including dystonia, hemifacial spasm, vaginal spasms, and orofacial dyskinesias. It's even been used to block sweat glands for those who experience excessive sweating. Botox's nerve-blocking potential can be utilized in a number of ways, and doctors are just beginning to tap into the practical applications of what was once a very misunderstood material.

Perhaps the most common use for Botox, aside from cosmetic purposes, is to relieve pain for chronic migraine sufferers. Intramuscular botulinum toxin injections have recently been approved by the FDA for those who suffer from chronic migraines 15 or more headache days per month; the treatment includes 31 injections at 7 different sites on the neck and head, and looks similar to an acupuncture map. For those who suffer from chronic migraines, this treatment can be life changing: Imagine going from being completely bedridden over half of each month, to gaining back your functionality, all from a few injections to the face and neck.

Whether or not you'd choose to use Botox for yourself, for any one of its miraculous uses, it can't be denied that it's come a long way since it's discovery in the 1800's. Each time it seems it's going out of style, we discover a new use for it, or we decide that it's not anti-feminist after all. Perhaps Botox itself is drinking from the fountain of youth.