Quackery

As medical knowledge and practices advanced, the opportunity for bogus doctors to make a living rose with it. Let's dive into the crazy world of Quackery, that needs to be seen to be believed!

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Table of contents

    Quackery: Meaning

    So what does quackery actually mean? Below is a definition of the practice.

    Quackery

    The promotion of fraudulent medicines or cures in order to make money. The people who peddle these fraudulent cures are called quacks.

    Types of Quackery

    There are three distinct types of quackery. They are as follows:

    1. Charlatans: Quacks that deliberately deceive their patients using charm and manipulation.
    2. Cranks: Those who believe that their practices are effective, despite the lack of evidence.
    3. Hucksters: People who use quackery as an opportunity for financial gain.

    Sometimes quacks can have elements of more than one characteristic. Now, let's look at the history!

    History of Quackery

    Originating in Europe in the Middle Ages, in the 17th and 18th centuries, quackery became more widespread in Britain as people sought to capitalise on the public's new interest in science by performing medical 'shows' on the streets in order to capture their interest. They also provided a cheap alternative to physicians or an apothecary. The prevailing notions of classical physicians Galen and Hippocrates had reemerged during the Renaissance. Now, with a new emphasis on evidence-based medicine, quacks queued up to debunk their theories.

    The 18th century coincided with the Age of Enlightenment and a shift from religiously dominated superstition to a more evidence-based understanding of the world. For the first time in history, a widespread interest in science led to a willingness to accept and engage with medicine as such.

    Physician

    A person involved in the practical application of medicine.

    Apothecary

    A place to buy medicine, often centred around herbal remedies; the forerunner of the modern day chemist.

    These 'quacks' captured the public's attention by showing them cures for every illness under the sun, and even going so far as claiming to sell love potions and beauty products.

    Quackery Quack cartoon StudySmarterFig. 1 - An 18th-century cartoon of a 'Quack' doctor promising a cure for the plague

    Quacks travelled around from town to town, often distributing flyers to announce their arrival. They even became an object of entertainment for wealthier people, who would go and see the quack's 'performance' in town.

    Purpose of Quackery

    The purpose of quackery for the quack himself was to make money and gain popularity.

    For the general public, they were a source of entertainment and wonder in an age where there were lots of new scientific inventions and theories being created. Equally, quacks could provide cures and remedies for a much lower price than an apothecary, so people were drawn to them.

    Quacks especially sought to provide 'cures' for frightening diseases and those believed to be incurable - for example, cancer, sexually-transmitted infections, and tuberculosis. Their trade also flourished at times of great trouble - usually during epidemics or pandemics. They were able to capitalise on people's fear and make a lot of money from selling bogus remedies.

    The performance of a quack could become very elaborate and dramatic, going so far as to fake illnesses or injuries with clever tactics in order to demonstrate their products.

    Did you know? Some quacks even pretended to be from foreign countries so as to add an air of mystery to their performance, making them more enticing to the general public.

    The Dangers of a Quack's Medicine

    It is worth noting that the remedies offered by quacks were, at best, ineffective, and at worst dangerous. Often, the ingredients in these so-called 'miracle cures' were not listed, and there were no kinds of regulations to stop dangerous substances from being used in these cures.

    Quackery: Examples

    If we scour through history, there are countless examples of quackery and quack doctors. Let's dive into some of the most compelling ones!

    The Plague

    When the plague came to London in 1665, quack doctors saw the opportunity to make some money and gain credibility. It has to be said, not all quacks were only out for money - some stayed in the city because they genuinely wanted to try and help people. However, it was noticeable that many quacks began to pop up in London at this time, especially since many of the physicians and credible medical practitioners had left the city to escape infection.

    Quackery Tankard engraving depicting the Great Plague StudySmarterFig. 2 - Tankard engraving depicting the Great Plague

    The quote below is an example of how medicine was peddled within this atmosphere:

    A universal remedy for the plague. The only true plague water. The royal antidote against all kinds of infection.1

    - Daniel Defoe, 'History of the Plague in London', 1722

    William Read (1648-1715)

    William Read is an example of how quack doctors could become famous and achieve status in Early Modern England.

    Quackery portrait of William Read StudySmarterFig. 3 - Famous quack doctor William Read

    Born in Aberdeen, Read was the son of a cobbler and was illiterate. Nevertheless, he practised ophthalmology (the study of the eye) in the North of England for some years - yet there is no evidence of him receiving any medical training. By 1694, he had settled in London and fraudulently claimed in the magazine Tatler that he had 35 years of experience as an oculist (eye doctor) and was an expert at curing conditions of the eye.

    In 1705, he was appointed the oculist to Queen Anne, and was eventually knighted for his services to her!

    Did you know? William Read was also appointed oculist to Anne's successor, King George I in 1714.

    In 1706, Read authored a pamphlet on diseases of the eye - in 1932, it was revealed that large parts of it were plagiarised from a work by the fully trained and well-qualified oculist Richard Banister.

    Read's case serves as an interesting example of how quackery was in Early Modern Britain and how successful quacks could be.

    Quackery: Overview

    The following analysis provides a sense of just how rife quackery was during the plague and the absence of scientific understanding in the early modern period and the eighteenth century.

    A prescription sent to a dozen different pharmacies would yield as many different remedies, differing in appearance, odour, taste, and, we suppose, effectiveness. The bubonic plague, smallpox, and syphilis took their toll, but the quack survived.2

    - Janet and Stanley Lieberman, 'A Short History of Quackery and By Ways in Medicine', 1975

    A quack could easily pose as a qualified physician, especially during times when there was a dearth of these. They were able to fake qualifications and use their business and nous to plug gaps for demand. As a consumer society developed in eighteenth-century Britain, quacks harnessed the low efficacy of contemporary medicine, meaning that it was difficult to distinguish between them and qualified practitioners. Emphasis was now on the cure and early marketing techniques beguiled the public. An interesting facet of this is the role of advertising. Quacks filled many a column in magazines with their supposed miracle cures!

    Quackery, often referred to as alternative medicine today, is as popular as ever. People are increasingly aware of, and looking to seek ways of curing themselves without the harmful side effects of many drugs. It is interesting that proponents of these are no longer labelled quacks despite the immense advancement of medicinal knowledge.

    Quackery - Key takeaways

    • Quackery was the promotion of fraudulent medical practices and cures for financial gain.
    • Quacks travelled around towns promoting their services, often putting on performances demonstrating how wonderful their cures were.
    • Their remedies were almost always ineffective and could easily be dangerous as ingredients were not regulated.
    • They were a cheap alternative to physicians and apothecaries and claimed to cure the incurable - this is how they drew people in.
    • They were especially prevalent in times of a health crisis, as during the Great Plague in 1665.
    • Some quacks did well for themselves and became famous, like William Read.

    References

    1. Daniel Defoe quoted by Burnett and Rattle, 'The Aberdeen Magazine', Vol. 2, 13-24, (30 Mar 2009). pp. 180.
    2. Janet and Stanley Lieberman, 'A Short History of Quackery and By Ways in Medicine', The American Biology Teacher, Vol. 37, No. 1 (Jan., 1975), pp. 39-43.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Quackery

    What are the three common forms of quackery?

    The three common types of quacks are charlatans, cranks and hucksters.

    What is the origin of quackery?

    Quackery originated in Europe during the Middle Ages and grew during the Renaissance and Early Modern Period.

    What is the purpose of quackery?

    The purpose of quackery is to gain medical legitimacy and make a profession out of it.

    When did quackery start?

    Quackery started in the Middle Ages in Europe.

    What is an example of quackery?

    William Read's plagiarism of Richard Banister is an example of quackery.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Quackery started in Britain.

    Which of these is not a type of quackery?

    Sometimes quacks pretended to be foreign.

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