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Quacks And Quackery Continued

Sources: 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 ex
ctor, 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

potent charm.

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.