The Golden Age of Medical Quackery

The Golden Age of Medical Quackery

The story of medical quackery probably began shortly after the first cry of pain resounded through a primitive jungle and brought the first physician. Before long the healer realized he could be more effective, and the afflicted one more responsive, if the treatment were laced with a touch of hocus—pocus. In Medieval Europe quacksalver was the term that identified a person who sold salves by noisily hawking, or "quacking," the wares. Eventually quack became the word, because to some the quacksalver sounded like a noisy duck. The charlatans who were the early quacks were often, then as now, simply dishonest folk out to make a quick buck by taking advantage of the gullible, the fearful, and the ignorant.

First exposed by Rhazes, the wise man of medicine of ninth—century Persia, medical quackery was well recorded during historic times. Europe and Asia had long been rife with bold tricksters, incredibly successful at fooling the public. Rhazes enumerated a number of their stratagems. Since almost any complaint could be blamed on the presence of a foreign body, the pretender "removed" it. Palming the real or fabricated foreign body and making an incision where the patient could not observe it (the ear, nose, mouth, and back of the head were ideal), he drew blood. He could then show the patient the evidence: small rocks, lizards, worms, frogs (usually artificial animals composed of liver). The patient, much relieved that the cause of the affliction had been removed, expected to feel much better as soon as the surgical wound healed.

Eighteenth—century England is remembered as the Golden Age of Quackery, since Queen Anne patronized and gave credibility to myriad swindlers and frauds. One of the more successful of the self—confident but unqualified healers was a Frenchman, Jacques Beaulieu, who finally became licensed as a stone cutter, or lithotomist (one who removes kidney and bladder stones). He traveled through Europe removing gall stones and kidney stones, often successfully. He wore the habit and broad—brimmed hat of a Franciscan friar to guarantee security and free hospitality. He also gained wealth (which he left to charity) and immortality, for he became known in song and rhyme as Frère Jacques (Brother John).

America's first renowned quack was Dr. Elisha Perkins, who in 1796 patented a device guaranteed to cure anything by simply moving "Perkins's Patented Metallic Tractor" downward over the ailing part of the body. By moving it slowly and carefully, the doctor could yank out any disease known to humanity. Perkins's device was the rage of the time, and he gained considerable wealth and respectability. A notable who used Perkins's appliance was George Washington, whose entire family found it therapeutic and said treatments gave them a sense of well—being. Even Perkins became convinced that this device actually did work, although its special properties were among the natural wonders that he didn't quite understand.

The purveyors of quack medicines surfaced early in colonial America. Capitalizing on the ordinary person's ignorance and fear of illness, pain, and death, they needed only to convince ailing people that they could relieve suffering. Vendors of herbs, pills, potions, patent medicines, or their own concoctions and lay practitioners of indiscriminate medicine made the rounds of country villages. Indian potions were popular and trusted cure—alls. After all, the Native Americans were in tune with nature, weren't they? Hadn't their knowledge of roots, barks, herbs, gums, and leaves—to say nothing of buffalo tallow—been keeping them strong and well for generations? The mountebank, half showman and half quack physician, would tour the country with a wagonload of wares and material for a spectacular show. Even before the Revolution, enough of them were around that several colonies passed legislation to "suppress and control mountebanks dealing out physick and medicine of unknown composition."

During the 19th century, medical quackery really flourished in rural America. Driving wagons profusely decorated with ads proclaiming the effectiveness of their potions, medicine show entertainers toured the country hawking their wares. Despite disapproval from town fathers and the pulpit, the mountebank delighted crowds of entertainment—starved people. The sideshow kept the crowds coming and set them up for a proper shearing.

Often the only medicine sold was a cure—all. By cleaning impure blood or regulating the action of the stomach, liver, kidneys, lungs, or some other organ, this "wonder medicine" would cure malaria, chills, biliousness, nervousness, rheumatism, headache, catarrh, heart palpitations, wakefulness, piles, dyspepsia, skin disease, pimples, and dozens of other afflictions. And the clever huckster could extend the potential of the elixir to accommodate any distress suffered by an audience member, be it baldness, boils, or a broken arm.

Most of the medicines were priced at one dollar, a significant amount in the 1800s. But the seller might display sale prices to tempt a reluctant crowd or reward a responsive one. Usually there was a money—back guarantee, but by the time the still—ailing patient was ready for a refund, the doctor would have long since changed his location, appearance, and name.

Many early medications that guaranteed a euphoric feeling while curing myriad ailments contained cocaine. One French tonic wine combined two ounces of fresh coca leaves per pint of Bordeaux wine. This potent concoction was praised as an elixir of life by such notables as Jules Verne, Emile Zola, Sarah Bernhardt, Thomas Edison, and John Philip Sousa.

Professional quacks may have been amazed at their own occasional success. They should have recognized, however, as have poets and philosophers, that time, patience, a good laugh, and a long sleep are the best cures. That patients regained health from some quack machine or medication should have come as no surprise; doctors have long known that 60 percent of the time the body, untreated, will cure itself.

One entrepreneurial genius in quackery (low overhead, high profit, great demand, quick results) sold diet pills in the 1930s. They were guaranteed to make the user lose weight rapidly, and they certainly did work but with very undesirable side effects, including several deaths. Chemical analysis of the pills showed that they were nothing but tapeworm eggs. Unfortunately the woman who sold them disappeared without a trace.

Peddlers of wizard oil and other cure—alls continued to ply their wares long after the Food and Drug Act of 1906 began to cramp their style. One of the last was a state senator from Louisiana who created Hadacol, the universal potion of the South. By adding honey to B vitamin tonic and lacing it generously with 12 percent alcohol, he could almost guarantee a gallon jug of his quick picker—upper in a convenient corner of every southern home. Stupendous advertising, high—pressure selling, and Hadacol Caravan shows (with a smattering of show business celebrities) got out the word. Money could not buy admission to the spectacular shows—only Hadacol boxtops could (two for an adult, one for a child). The medicine show had definitely reached new heights. Then, in 1951, the boom began to bust, and by 1954 free shows to sell products had been taken over by television on a scale far beyond anything the medicine show huckster could have ever dreamed of.

During the uranium boom of the 1950s, quackery again reared its crooked head. Near many cities and towns in the uranium—producing states such as Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado, enterprising souls set up uranium sand houses. These crudely built, somewhat circular structures had a single large room with a sand—covered floor. Patients could sit on benches along the walls, but most sufferers preferred to bury themselves, or at least their ailing body parts, in the radioactive sands. An hour or two of absorbing the radioactive rays was considered a therapeutic treatment, and the "doctor"—proprietor usually recommended more than one treatment. The patient had a relaxing, stress—free rest, along with a gentle fleecing, and left much better able to face the world.

The clean, inviting beach sand really was radioactive. The owner would obtain a radioactive mineral such as carnotite, crush it to a powder, and sprinkle it sparingly throughout the sand. Cautious use of the mineral had nothing to do with fear that the uranium might be harmful but was merely a cost—cutting strategy. A geologist in Utah checked out the radioactivity of a uranium house with his Geiger counter. He found it to be weakly radioactive, barely above the level of residual or background radioactivity. Luckily, extravagance was not one of the owner's shortcomings; no one ever used enough uranium to cause leukemia or any radiation—related ailments.

As with the quest for the universal solvent, the search for a panacea to cure all ailments has not ceased. One grandmother sent for a product, advertised by a doctor in an Atlanta, Georgia, newspaper, that was guaranteed to immunize her from all afflictions. What she received was a gold pencil—shaped instrument that was supposed to contain radioactive material. The instructions were to put the pencil in a glass of water and leave it there overnight. Then she was to remove the pencil from the glass and drink the water. Despite the hoax, the grandmother lived to the ripe age of 97. The amount of radioactive material in the pencil was so slight that she was not harmed by it, and she did receive the advantage of an extra glass of water each day for about 15 years.

In the past, and currently as well, old wives' tales have been the source of much medicine, some illogical quackery and some effective treatment. A Palm Springs, California, resident recalls how, throughout his early childhood, his mother would wrap slices of raw onion in a cloth that she tied around his neck whenever he complained of a sore throat. The only noticeable result was that the onions would disappear. This happened quite regularly, because complaints of a sore throat increased in frequency as the boy acquired a fondness for onions. His partiality to onions has remained with him, and 50 years later he cannot recall ever having had a cold last more than two days, even when the cold virus raised havoc with his family.

Onions do have therapeutic value and have been recommended medicinally over the centuries for dog bites, insomnia, pneumonia, diabetes, overweight (only 34 calories), rheumatism, baldness, and gunshot wounds (apply topically). To this list our onion enthusiast would add cold prevention. He does admit, however, he must always stay downwind from his friends after indulging in his favorite aromatic vegetable. Perhaps keeping a distance from friends and family is the real reason that he has remained relatively free of colds!

From the book: 
Petrified Lightning