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Quacks And Quackery
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Quacks And Quackery Continued
Source: Primitive Psycho-therapy And Quackery
An English physician, who practised during the early part of the reign
of King James I, described the charlatan of that period as shameless, a
mortal hater of all good men, an adept in cozening, legerdemain,
conycatching, and all other shifts and sleights; a cracking
boaster, proud, insolent, a secret back-biter, a contentious wrangler, a
common jester and liar, a runagate wanderer, a cogging sychophant
and covetous exactor, a wringer of his patients. In a word, a man, or
rather monster, made of a mixture of all vices.
Robert Burton, in "The Anatomy of Melancholy," published in 1621, said
that "if we seek a physician as we ought, we may be eased of our
infirmities; such a one, I mean, as is sufficient and worthily so
called. For there be many mountebanks, quack-salvers and empiricks, in
every street almost, and in every village, that take upon them this
name, and make this noble and profitable art to be evil spoken of and
contemned by reason of these base and illiterate artificers. . . . Many
of them to get a fee, will give physick to every one that comes, without
That original genius, Daniel Defoe (1661-1731), in his "Description of a
Quack Doctor," wrote that sometimes he would employ the most vulgar
phrases imaginable, and again he would soar out of sight and traverse
the spacious realms of fustian and bombast. He was, indeed, very sparing
of his Latin and Greek, as (God knows) his stock of those commodities
was but slender. But then, for hard words and terms, which neither he,
nor you, nor I, nor anybody else could understand, he poured them out in
such abundance that you'd have sworn he had been rehearsing some of the
occult philosophy of Agrippa, or reading extracts from the Cabala.
"If a man doth but write a book," observed an old author, "or at least
transcribe a great part of it, word for word, out of another book, and
give it a new title, he is naturally regarded by the ignobile vulgus
as a famous doctor, especially if he write M.D. after his name. But let
none of these poor shifts or sleights deceive you. You will quickly see
that the drift of such publication was only to sell off some Packets of
Quack Remedies, and hedge you into his clutches, where 'tis odds but
he will pinch, if he does not gripe you to death."
In the old Province of Languedoc, in Southern France, charlatans were
liable to be summarily dealt with. For when any mountebank appeared in
the city of Montpellier, the magistrates were empowered to set him
astride of a meagre, miserable ass, with his face to the animal's tail.
Thus placed, the wretched mountebank was made to traverse the streets of
the town, his progress meanwhile being enlivened by the hooting and
shouts of the children, and the ironical jeers of the populace.
The facility wherewith ignorant persons may acquire a reputation for
skill in Medicine, is exemplified by the following anecdote. A
Staffordshire cobbler had somehow gotten possession of a parcel of
medical receipts, and made such diligent use thereof, that he not only
was speedily invested with the title of Doctor, but likewise became
famous in the neighborhood on account of some alleged remarkable cures.
Thereupon he laid aside his awl to assume the dignity of a charlatan. It
happened that a young lady of fortune fell ill about that time, and her
mother was induced to send for the newly fledged Esculapian. The
latter, after examining the patient, remarked that he would go home and
consider the case, as he never prescribed rashly. Accordingly in looking
over his recipes, he found one which tickled his fancy, although the
directions, "to be taken in a proper vehicle," mystified him. Nothing
daunted, he consulted a dictionary and found that a vehicle was either a
coach, cart or wheel-barrow. Highly elated, he hastened to inform the
young lady's mother that her coach must be gotten ready at once, and
that her daughter must get into it and take the remedy which he had
brought. But the lady would not consent, alleging the risk of exposure
to the outside air. "Well," said the rascally quack, "you must then
order a wheel-barrow to be sent to your daughter's room, for this
medicine must be taken in a proper vehicle, and in my opinion a
wheel-barrow will answer the purpose as well as a coach." Can any
one doubt that the wheel-barrow furnished a powerful therapeutic
suggestion in this case?
In the early part of the eighteenth century, it appears that charlatans
were very numerous in England. Indeed the "corps of medical savages" was
almost as motley and manifold in form as in the Middle Ages. The
dabblers in medicine included grocers, book-sellers, printers,
confectioners, merchants and traders, midwives, medical students,
preachers, chemists, distillers, gipsies, shepherds, conjurors, old
women, sieve-makers and water-peddlers. Apothecaries were permitted to
sell drugs to "alchemists, bath-servants and ignorant quacks, while
dabsters, calf-doctors, rag-pickers, magicians, witches,
crystallomancers, sooth-sayers and other mancipia [purchased slaves]
of the Devil, were allowed to practice Medicine."
At this same period, we are told, the mass of the English people were
extraordinarily credulous. And this fact was true, not only of the
densely ignorant class, but also of the more intelligent and better
educated middle class, who were ready to believe everything that
appeared in print. Hence was afforded an ideal field for the
exercise of the wily charlatan's activities. And the glowing
advertisements of quack remedies appealed strongly to the popular fancy.
A London surgeon, Dr. P. Coltheart, writing in 1727, asserted that
English practitioners of that time were the peers of any in Europe. He
complained, however, of the multitude of ignorant quacks, who were
allowed a free hand in the practice of their pretended art, to the
detriment of the community.
The spectacle of such a gallant array of charlatans, recruited from the
ranks of illiterate tramps and vagrants, the very scum of society, yet
thriving by reason of the popular credulity, certainly warranted the
scathing arraignment of these interlopers by reputable physicians, who
thus found a vent for their righteous indignation, although they were
powerless to impede thereby the strong tide of imposture.
How often it happened, wrote William Connor Sydney, in "England and the
English in the Eighteenth Century," that a bricklayer (who chanced to be
the seventh son of his father), or a sharp-witted cobbler, picked up an
antiquated collection of medieval recipes, and perused it in his leisure
hours! Then, dispensing with his trowel or awl, he devoted himself to
the sale of pellets, lotions and gargles, possessing marvellous virtues!
Here is a copy of an advertisement which appeared in an early number of
the London "Spectator":
Loss of Memory or Forgetfulness certainly cured by a grateful
electuary, peculiarly adapted for that end. It strikes at the
primary source, which few apprehend, of Forgetfulness, makes
the head clear and easy, the spirits free, active and
undisturbed; corroborates and revives all the noble faculties
of the soul, such as thought, judgment, apprehensions, reason
and memory, which last in particular it so strengthens as to
render that faculty exceeding quick and good beyond
imagination, thereby enabling those whose memory was almost
totally lost, to remember the minutest circumstances of their
affairs, etc; to a wonder. Price 2s. 6d a pot. Sold only at
Mr. Payne's, at the Angel and Crown, in St. Paul's
Church-Yard, with directions.
William Smith, in his "History of the Province of New York from its
First Discovery to the Year 1722" (London, 1757), wrote as follows:
The History of our Diseases belongs to a Profession with which
I am very little acquainted. Few physicians amongst us are
eminent for their skill. Quacks abound like Locusts in Egypt,
and too many have recommended themselves to a full Practice
and profitable subsistence. This is the less to be wondered
at, as the Profession is under no Kind of Regulation. Loud as
the call is, to our Shame be it remembered, we have no Law to
protect the Lives of the King's Subjects from the Malpractice
of Pretenders. Any man at his Pleasure sets up for Physician,
Apothecary and Chirurgeon. No candidates are either examined
or licensed, or even sworn to fair practice. In 1753 the City
of New York alone boasted the Honour of having forty Gentlemen
of that Faculty.
A contributor to the Cincinnati "Lancet and Observer," October, 1861,
moralized on this subject in a somewhat pessimistic vein.
To see an ignorant, boastful quack petted, caressed and patronized by
people of culture and refinement, wrote he, such as members of the
learned professions, statesmen, philosophers, shrewd merchants and
bankers, as well as by worthy mechanics and trusting farmers, is enough
to make one ponder whether after all it is worth while to devote money,
time and talents in acquiring a thorough knowledge of professional
duties. . . . However natural such a method of reasoning, it will not
influence the sober mens conscia recti of the trained physician.
In an address before the Medical and Surgical Society of Baltimore,
January 17, 1859, Dr. Lewis H. Steiner defined quackery as that mode of
practising medicine, which adopts one and the same remedy for every
disease, of whatever origin or nature. Quackery, wherever found, is
based upon a misapplication of some recognized principle or fact, and
hence invariably presupposes the existence of a modicum of truth, as its
Precisely as the counterfeit coin has a certain value with the unwary,
on account of its resemblance to that which is genuine, so all quackery
must proceed from a false application of a known truth, or an attempted
imitation of this truth in various forms.
An analogy was drawn between a quack and the weaker animal in a
dog-fight by a writer in "The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal,"
April 1, 1846. For, said he, it is a trait of human nature to side with
the under-dog. And it is this trait which causes some people to be
pleased at the quack's success, for they regard him, in a sporting
sense, as a little dog, and demand for him fair play. The maudlin
sympathies of such persons are aroused by the sight of an adventurer
striving against odds, with one sole end in view, namely, the
accumulation of shekels under false pretences.
Probably at no period in the world's history has charlatanry been more
flourishing than during the first decade of the twentieth century, and
that too in the face of unexampled progress in medical Science. The
reason is not far to seek. The modern quack utilizes the power of the
unconscious or subjective mind over the body. This is the effective
agency, not only in so-called mental healing, but also in
semi-scientific cures of various sorts, in faith-cures, as well as in
the cures ascribed to relics and charms. The widespread heralding
of patent medicines is also founded upon the principle of
auto-suggestion. The descriptions of symptoms and diseases in the
advertisements of charlatans, suggest morbid ideas to the objective mind
of the reader. These ideas, being then transferred to his subjective
mind, exert an unwholesome influence upon his bodily functions.
His next procedure is the trial of some vaunted nostrum. Thus the shrewd
empiric thrives at the expense of his fellow men. He takes a mean
advantage of their credulity, though probably in most cases unaware of
the vicious psychological processes, which render many his willing
It has been aptly remarked that the public is ever more ready to believe
pleasing fictions, than disagreeable verities. Populus vult decipi,
trite saying though it be, is as true to-day as at any time in the
past. If it were not so, quackery could not thrive. Gladly the people
"honors pay to those who on their understandings most impose." Apropos
of the methods of charlatans, is the story of a certain Scotch farmer,
whose success in selling his cattle at high prices aroused the curiosity
of his neighbors. One day, when fuddled with drink, after much coaxing,
he revealed the secret by saying: "On going to sell my beasties, I first
finds a fool, and then I shoves 'em on to him."
Dr. William Osler, in his "Aequanimitas and Other Addresses" (1904),
remarked that "Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers"; and in matters
medical the ordinary citizen of to-day has not one whit more sense than
the Romans of old, whom the witty Greek writer Lucian scourged for a
credulity which made them fall easy victims to the quacks of the second
century. Man has an inborn craving for medicine. Heroic dosing for
several generations has given his tissues a thirst for drugs; and now
that the pharmacists have cloaked even the most nauseous remedies, the
temptation is to use physic on every occasion.
Dudley F. Sicher, in the "Popular Science Monthly," September, 1905,
comments on the enormous development of quackery, which has been more
than commensurate with the growth of medical science and the advance of
western civilization, in recent years. According to this authority, the
number of resident quacks in Berlin, Germany, has increased sixteen-fold
since 1874. And in New York City, there are approximately twenty
thousand, against six thousand regular practitioners. "Given on the one
hand the limitations of scientific medicine, the dread of disease, and
the power of auto-suggestion, and on the other hand, depraved humanity,
hard-driven in the struggle for existence, and you have the essential
parts, which, with a few minor pieces, make up the quackery
machine. . . . Psycho-therapeutics and knowledge of human nature make up
the quack's entire outfit." The popular distrust of legitimate Medicine
facilitates a recourse to the alleged marvellous specifics and panaceas,
so extensively advertised; lineal descendants of the magical remedies of
Then, too, the secrecy and mystery associated with the remedies of
quacks, appeal strongly to the popular fancy.
Charles Dickens wrote in "Barnaby Rudge" that it was only necessary to
invest anything, however absurd, with an air of mystery, in order to
give it a secret charm and power of attraction, which people are unable
to resist. False prophets, he said, false priests, false doctors, false
prodigies of whatever kind, veiling their proceedings in mystery, have
always addressed themselves at an immense advantage, to the popular
credulity, and have been, perhaps, more indebted to that resource in
gaining and keeping for a time the upper hand of Truth and Common Sense,
than to any half-dozen items in the whole catalogue of imposture. To
awaken curiosity and to gratify it by slow degrees, yet leaving
something always in suspense, is to establish the surest hold that can
be had, in wrong, on the unthinking portion of mankind.
Unscrupulous charlatans have shrewdness enough to make free use of the
power of suggestion in their nefarious practice, though oftentimes
doubtless wholly ignorant of its mode of action. The great majority of
them, while probably unaware of the existence of subconscious mental
life, have always had a vivid realization of the positive fact of the
gullibility of human nature, a fact which affords them the keenest
pleasure and enduring satisfaction.
One can well imagine that the winning smile which often illumines the
features of a sleek and crafty pretender, is supplanted by audible
chuckling when he retires from company. Having long since gotten rid of
his conscience, he can afford to be merry at the expense of his fellow
It has been aptly said that no amount of instruction in physiology or
materia medica at medical colleges will have any influence in the
suppression of quackery. But the recognition and utilization, by the
profession, of the wonderful forces of psycho-therapy will have such
an influence, because light will thereby be shed upon the methods of the
charlatan, whose operations will then no longer be shrouded from the
public view in mystery, wherein has lain for many centuries their most
The author of "Physic and Physicians" (London, 1839) remarks that a
doctor should always have ready an answer to every question which a lady
may put to him, for the chances are that she will be satisfied with it.
Moreover he should invariably diagnose an affection with celerity; and
rather than betray ignorance of the seat of a disorder, it were better,
says this writer, to assign it at once to the pancreas or pineal gland.
A lady once asked her apothecary, an ignorant fellow, regarding the
composition of castor oil, and seemed quite content with his reply, that
it was extracted from the beaver. Another patient asked her physician
how long she was likely to be ill, and was told that it depended largely
on the duration of the disease. A certain doctor, probably a quack,
acquired some notoriety by always prescribing the left leg of a boiled
fowl. Reiteration of the superior nutritive qualities of that member,
and positive assertions of the comparative worthlessness of the right
leg, doubtless impressed the patients' minds in a salutary manner.
A writer in "Putnam's Magazine," August, 1909, commends the so-called
Emmanuel Movement as capable of benefiting many, in all stations of
life. He says further that the wicked and the charlatan may enter upon
the practice of psycho-therapy, but in a majority of cases, the
sub-conscious mind, upon which the healer works, will reject the evil
suggestion of the practitioner who strives to use his powers for malign
purposes. That is the almost unanimous verdict of the psychological
experts. If the old proverb be true, "In vino veritas," so in the
hypnotic state the real bent of the normal mind and personality is more
ready to follow the good and reject the bad suggestion, than in the
normal, conscious state. Instinctive morality comes to the aid of the
genuine psycho-therapist, and refuses its cooeperation to the
In the United States, the door yawns wider for the admission of
charlatans than in any other country. The demand for panaceas and for
the services of those who pretend to cure by unusual methods, is not
limited to persons who are wanting in intelligence, or to those who are
weakened and discouraged by exhausting diseases. So long as the love of
the marvellous exists, there will be a certain demand for quackery, and
the supply will not be wanting.
Probably in no region of the world does there exist a more attractive
field for medical pretenders, than the thickly settled foreign
settlements of the city of New York. Here they may thrive and fatten, as
they ply their nefarious trade, doubtless slyly laughing the while, on
account of the simplicity of their helpless victims. The poor hungry
wretch who steals a loaf of bread is held legally accountable for the
theft, and if caught, he is punished therefor. The unscrupulous quack,
by reason of his shrewdness, goes scot-free, though a vastly greater
villain. To quote from a recent editorial in the "New York Times": "A
course in medicine and surgery is expensive, and takes a lot of time,
while a varied assortment of pseudo-religious and pseudo-philosophic
phrases can be learned in a few days by any man or woman with a
disinclination for honest work."
A recent English writer argued that it were folly to attempt the
suppression of quackery by statute; for, says he, the freeborn
Anglo-Saxon considers that he has the inalienable right of going to the
Devil in his own way. And he resents anything like dictation in the
sphere of medicine, as much as in religion.
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