American Medical Quackery from the 1700s to Today Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

American Medical Quackery from the 1700s to Today

6 Conversations

A Victorian doctor and his patient

The origin of the word 'quack' comes from the Dutch quacksalver, literally meaning 'chatter salve' or someone who prattles or boasts about the efficacy of their remedies. The practice of quackery has existed for as long as mankind has been feeling ill. In the 1700s, microscopes1 were a relatively new invention, and the most popular methods of treating a patient were bloodletting, blistering, and purging2. The general public had very little faith in doctors (probably as a result of all that bleeding, blistering, and purging), and couldn't afford their services anyway, so they went to alternative medicine for a cure.

Practitioners of alternative medicine were not saints. Some were crooks, while others genuinely tried to help their patients. Their remedies were, at best, harmless. When the Industrial Revolution began, scientific breakthroughs paved the way for unscrupulous entrepreneurs, who began to make devices and medicines based upon recent discoveries, hoping that it would lend credibility to their products. The technology that the Industrial Revolution offered was not that far removed from magic to the uneducated public; they bought these quackeries by the ton, and subjected themselves to all sorts of electrical shocks, radio waves, radiation, and noxious concoctions in the hopes of a quick and easy cure.


In 1791, Luigi Galvani discovered that direct current could be created when certain metals were put in contact with each other and placed in seawater. In 1796, Elisha Perkins obtained the first patent for a quack device, the Metallic Tractors. The Tractors were very simple, being pieces of metal, one iron, one brass. Following the rather complex instructions, 'pains in the head, face, teeth, breast, side, stomach, back, rheumatism and some gouts' could be treated. While many notables owned a pair of these Metallic Tractors, including George Washington, the success of the tractors actually relied upon the faith and suggestibility of the patient, rather than in how the tractors were applied. In 1800, Alessandro Volta further researched Galvani's discoveries and found that he could store the galvanic electricity in a 'battery' made of disks of silver, copper and moistened cardboard. Entrepreneurs in the 1800s began manufacturing items out of the same materials as Volta's battery and claimed that a galvanic current was produced when worn next to the skin. The human sweat would act as the salt solution and produce electricity, which was presumed to be good for all sorts of illnesses, including paralysis, rheumatism, nerve disorders, heart and blood diseases. Look in any Sears and Roebuck3 catalogue from that era and you'll find all sorts of 'electric' devices, including belts, hairbrushes, jewellery of all kinds, spectacles and even supports for shoes. Under perfect conditions, only the larger belts were capable of producing any electricity at all, and the only effect would have been a tingling sensation felt by the wearer.

For those willing to spend a little more money, there were Faradic batteries, designed to give the patient a sharp electric shock with an assortment of attachments. In the 1840s, induction coils were actually used to treat muscular problems, and in modern times, physical therapists treat injured muscles with electrical impulses to help strengthen them. Faradic batteries were sold with extravagant claims that they could cure asthma, diseases of the brain, diabetes, deafness, cataracts, measles, hysteria, hernias, loss of smell, ovarian tumours, and cancer.

A much smaller version of the Faradic battery, powered by 'D' cells, came out around 1913. Called the Vitapulsar, it consisted of a tube and a roller, with a switch on the side. The user inserted the batteries into the tube and placed the roller on the skin, producing a shock. The makers of the Vitapulsar claimed it would relieve pain, cure asthma, neuralgia, provide a relaxing massage, promote hair growth, help indigestion and constipation, both stimulate and calm the brain, and surprisingly enough, promote physical development - probably the only accurate claim of the Vitapulsar company. Other entrepreneurs would manufacture imitations of this device, including Willie Kent, maker of the Electreat Mechanical Heart. Kent claimed it would relieve pain, as well as curing dandruff, glaucoma, and appendicitis. He even claimed that it would enlarge women's breasts. In 1941, Willie Kent was brought to court on the charge of fraud. After the theoretical basis for his device was demolished by a team of experts, he took the stand against his lawyer's advice. After a number of questions which demonstrated his complete lack of medical knowledge, he was asked if he used the Electreat on his own body. 'Yes, sir,' Mr Kent replied. 'For menopause!'

The Violet Ray Generator

A similar invention intended to impress the credulous consisted of a Tesla coil contained in a hand-held instrument, with a wand at the end containing a vacuum tube. When activated, the tube lit up with a violet colour. In 1915, sellers of the violet ray generator claimed that it would relieve feelings of melancholy, stimulate circulation, treat rheumatic pain, nervous disorders, lumbago, and neuritis, that it had a calming effect on the nervous system, was effective in the treatment of cystitis and gonorrhea, stimulated the blood to increase beauty and health, removed facial blemishes, aided in the removal of dandruff and prevented hair loss. Violet ray generators looked impressive, but were about as effective as a bug zapper in the treatment of disease - perhaps the only thing it was really capable of doing was killing head lice. It's possible to purchase a violet ray generator on the Internet today. They are still produced and sold as a treatment for acne, hair loss, dandruff, grey hair and baldness - all claims that were disproved in 1951 when Master Appliances was found guilty of misbranding and their devices were ordered to be released to the Food and Drug Administration.


Dr Franz Joseph Gall was the first to lecture and publish papers about the study of cranioscopy, which states that the shape of the head is an indicator of the nature of the individual. Physiognomy is a similar idea and theorises that character can be determined by the shape of the face. Interest was stimulated in cranioscopy when Gall was deemed a threat to religion by the Austrian government, and ordered to cease lecturing on the subject. Others in the scientific community rushed to support him, and soon Gall and his followers had moved to Paris to lecture and write about their new system of psychology, which had been renamed 'phrenology' by Dr TI Foster, one of his colleagues.

Dr Gall believed that the brain had 26 organs, just like the heart and the kidneys. These organs would either atrophy from disuse, or grow because of stimulation, and the skull would bulge to make room for the enlarged organ. He had based the data in his system upon observation of friends, patients and acquaintances. The tell-tale bumps that indicated combativeness were ascertained by examining the skulls of the most argumentative of his friends, and comparing his findings with the examination of the head of a young quarrelsome woman of his acquaintance. Greed or 'acquisitiveness' was indicated by bumps just behind the temple because of two thieves with prominent bulges in that area. He determined that destructiveness was located above the ear at the widest point of the skull after examining two violent individuals: one was a sadistic student who became a surgeon, and the other was a pharmacist who became an executioner.

The theory of phrenology held strong for about 140 years, despite the shaky scientific foundation it was based on. The scientific community, after some investigation, finally began to attack Gall's findings because of his poor research techniques. Instead of recording both negative and positive findings, Gall had discarded any finding which did not support his theories. In 1808, the Institute of France assembled a committee, which found that phrenology 'was not to be trusted'. Napoleon Bonaparte is thought by some to have forced this decision; the result of the interpretation of the bulges on his skull did not please him. This was not the end of phrenology. Henry C Lavery was fascinated with the theory and, beginning in 1901, spent 26 years building a machine to interpret the bumps of the head. He called this machine the Psycograph. 33 machines were built and leased to theatre lobbies and department stores. The company remained in business until the 1930s, and the machines were returned to the family of Henry Lavery. Today you can find an example of his machine at the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices, now housed at the Science Museum of Minnesota, St. Paul, Minnesota, USA.

Phrenology did more harm than good. Before the theory of phrenology became popular, insane people were beaten because the asylums thought the devil was in them. With a scientific explanation for their behaviour, the insane came to be thought of as the mentally ill. However, anti-Semites and other racists used the theories of phrenology and physiognomy for their own purposes. Nazi scientists used both phrenology and physiognomy to support their allegations of genetic superiority in the 1940s, even though phrenology had been debunked in the 1800s.


Proponents of this theory believed that if oxygen could be injected into the body, it would cure any disease. Hercules Sanche was the 'inventor' of the first device, called the Electropoise. Soon to follow was the Oxydonor. These devices were very simple, consisting of a nickel or chrome-plated sealed metal cylinder. Cloth-wrapped wires led from each end with a metal plate of copper or aluminium attached to each. The user of the diaduction device placed the metal plates on their body with elastic bands, and placed the metal tube in a bowl of water. These devices were very difficult to open, because once the tube was opened, it usually contained sand or carbon, or more often nothing at all. Dr Sanche's Electropoise was completely empty, while the Oxydonor had a carbon rod inside. Sanche had elaborate claims for his invention, saying that it 'causes the human organism to thirst for and absorb oxygen, the vitaliser of the blood, through the myriad pores in the skin'. He had many imitators; after all, the device was very easy to duplicate!

In 1914, the US Post Office finally found a way to stop these quack device manufacturers: by accusing them of mail fraud. EL Moses of Buffalo, responsible for marketing the Oxypathor, a knock off of the Oxydonor, was the first to be convicted. He was sentenced to 18 months in the federal penitentiary. The Post Office, encouraged by their success, began to pursue the other imitators of Dr Hercules Sanche. In late 1915, Dr Sanche's company was denied access to the mail system. Instead of discontinuing the manufacture of these devices, he would simply move to avoid being convicted of a crime. He managed to escape the law for 32 years; in 1952 he was still at large, running the Hydrotonic company in Riviera, Florida.


Other machines claimed to diagnose and cure various diseases with radio waves; the most imitated was the Abrams 'Dynamizer' in 1909, which could supposedly diagnose any disease from a single drop of blood. If a drop of blood was not available, a lock of hair or even a handwriting sample would do.

Sceptical doctors sent Abrams a variety of blood samples that were purported to be from human patients, but were in reality taken from a variety of animals. Thus, a sheep was diagnosed as suffering from hereditary syphilis, and an 11-week-old rooster was diagnosed with a sinus infection and bad teeth. Another case was diagnosed as 'general cancer and tuberculosis of the genito-urinary tract'. Clearly, something was not quite right about the Abrams method.
- Quackwatch

Abrams' next invention was the 'oscilloclast', which could supposedly cure any disease found by the Dynamizer by vibrating the patient at a certain frequency. This device was based on his theory, which he called radionics, that all parts of the body had a specific vibration rate, and if the vibration rates of the diseased part could be determined, then the same frequency could be sent back into the patient and cure the disease. This procedure could even be performed over the phone for a fee. Then, one of Abrams' occiloclasts was opened to reveal a collection of useless electrical components wired haphazardly together in a totally meaningless manner, prompting physicist Robert Millikan to declare:

It's a contraption which might have been thrown together by a ten-year-old boy who knows a little about electricity to mystify an eight-year-old boy who knows nothing about it.
- Richard Van Vleck, from American Artifacts No 39

Albert Abrams is regarded as the 'dean of gadget quacks' (so dubbed by the American Medical Association), patenting 13 devices that were purported to detect radio-like frequencies broadcast by disease-causing agents. In the 1950s, the Food and Drug Administration tested Abrams' devices; they found that some produced magnetism similar to that produced by an electric doorbell, while others contained short-wave radio circuits like those found in a taxicab transmitter.

Abrams was not the only entrepreneur to use the little-understood principles of radio waves and electricity to sell his products; in 1936 Heil Eugene Crum patented his 'Co-Etherator'. The machine consisted of a small wooden box with 26 holes in the front. Tissue paper printed with letters of the alphabet in various colours was pasted over the holes, one letter per hole. Inside the box was an ordinary light bulb with a cord, which could be moved around to shine through the various paper-covered holes. Also inside the box was a tangle of disconnected wire, and a glass vial filled with ordinary water. The pedal and dial on the outside of the box had no connection to the interior. The operator had the patient moisten a piece of paper with saliva, and then inserted the slip into the box. The operator rubbed the pedal with his thumb and talked to the machine, reciting a list of common diseases. The light would then shine through one of the holes, and the letter shown was, according to Crum, the first letter of the patient's disease. Crum claimed that the machine could diagnose and cure anything from cancer to amputated fingers, and that patients weren't required to be present for the diagnosis and cure. He even claimed that he could administer 'financial treatments' (put money into the hands of his patient), fertilise fields, kill dandelions, and treat golf greens. Eventually he was brought to trial by the State and found guilty of gross immorality. Very few of these entrepreneurs were humanitarians; most were scoundrels and con men. These disreputable medical practitioners would often make a false diagnosis of an embarrassing social disease, such as syphillis or gonorrhea - the patient would be too embarrassed to get a second opinion, and would rather pay for the cure. Thus the sheep diagnosed with hereditary syphillis - if he had been a human being, he would have been horrified to find that not only did he have syphillis, but one or both of his parents did too!

Another common trick was to find several things wrong with the patient, like Dr Ruth Drown and her Homo-Vibra-Ray. Dr Drown would diagnose a multitude of ailments with the device, which supposedly took a photograph of the patient's intestines with a single drop of blood. Because of her large number of supporters, the University of Chicago formed a committee to test Dr Drown's machine. They were not impressed.

The machine is a sort of Ouija board. It is our belief that her alleged successes rest solely on the noncritical attitude of her followers. Her technique is to find so much trouble in so many organs that usually she can say 'I told you so' when she registers an occasional lucky positive guess. In these particular tests, even this luck deserted her.

Many examples of these radionic devices are in the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices. The number of gadgets from that time period are so numerous that the museum is unable to take any more exhibits - they've run out of room.


When radiation was first discovered by Madame Curie, it was found that many of the popular 'healing' hot springs contained radon in the water. Logically, if radon in the water was good for you, then the radium itself would be even more effective. Ironically, Madame Curie's fingers had fallen off before her death, but the gullible public purchased these radioactive products anyway! In the 1920s and '30s, it was possible to buy radium-containing products such as beauty creams, toothpaste, ear plugs, chocolate bars, soap, suppositories, and even contraceptives. Heating pads containing radioactive ore were a popular item. Manufacturers claimed that their products would cure cancer, epilepsy, tuberculosis, high blood pressure, arthritis, kidney trouble, and numerous other diseases. Male wearers of the Radioencrinator, a gold-plated piece of refined radium, were advised to place it under their scrotums at night for the health of the endocrine glands. Radioactive water was drunk with enthusiasm by the medical community and their patients. Some products allowed the consumer to infuse their water with radioactivity at home. The Revigator, which was a crock lined with radioactive ore, produced water that was five times as radioactive as the maximum recommended for well water today. Eben Byers, wealthy tycoon and amateur golf champion, was an endorser of Radithor, a radioactive tonic water containing 2 µCi of radium. He drank over 1400 bottles until portions of his mouth and jaw were surgically removed, and died of radium poisoning in April 1932. When Eben Byers' death was reported on the front page of the New York Times, proponents of the curative powers of radium began to rethink their theories.


In 1878 Edwin Babbit published The Principles of Light and Color: The Healing Power of Color. Babbit believed that pulsing coloured lights shone into the eyes could cure a deficiency in eyesight, correct eye co-ordination, and general health problems. We know today that ultraviolet light can kill bacteria, but Dinshah P Ghadiali4 claimed that he could cure a patient by shining multi-coloured light upon their bare skin. Calling it 'Spectro-Chrome Therapy', he said that the basic elements of the human body - oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and carbon - all had a corollary colour; oxygen was blue, hydrogen red, nitrogen green, and carbon yellow. He said that the human body is responsive to these four 'colour wave potencies' and to cure disease it was necessary to administer the lacking colours or reduce the colours that have become too brilliant. After 30 years of criminal activity, including immoral relations with a 19-year-old girl who had been his secretary, making over a million dollars selling the device, 12 criminal counts and five years probation, a permanent injunction was issued in 1959 against Ghadiali and Spectro-Chrome, and in 1966, Ghadiali died. Amazingly enough, the Spectro-Chrome is still available by mail order.

Patent Medicines

The term 'patent medicine' comes from Britain, where it was possible to apply for a Royal Patent to protect the rights to the product and give the medicines some prestige. One of the first patent medicines was Robert Turlington's 'Balsam of Life'. Eventually in the 19th Century all medical preparations were known as patent medicines. Some promised mystical healing cures like Princess Lotus Blossom's Vital Sparks ('from the Quali Quah pouch of the Kup Ki See Chinese Turtle'), while others professed to have some medical basis, like Dr Pierce's Golden Medical Discovery. The term 'snake oil salesman' comes from the most common claim of patent medicines - that they contained oil extracted from a snake. Most medicine men claimed to be Quakers, Indians, or Orientals. Indians and Orientals were thought to have ancient, mystical knowledge, and Quakers were scrupulously honest, so by impersonating these people, the medicine men hoped to gain some prestige and respect.

Almost none of the medicines actually contained what they claimed as ingredients. Vital Sparks was actually rock candy rolled in powdered aloe. Tiger Fat, supposedly made from Royal Bengal tigers' backbones, was actually made of Vaseline, camphor, menthol, eucalyptus oil, turpentine, wintergreen oil, and paraffin. Liver Pads were promoted as a cure for liver diseases, but were nothing more than a circle of fabric with a spot of glue and cayenne pepper on the back. When worn against the stomach as directed, the body heat melted the glue, and the stinging sensation was perceived as having a beneficial effect. Most patent medicines were actually alcohol based, and some contained cocaine, opium or morphine. The Prohibition was a wonderful boost to the patent medicine business; Lydia E Pinkham's Vegetable Compound was approximately 15 to 20 percent alcohol. Dr Hostetter's Stomach Bitters contained 44.3 percent alcohol, which is more potent than 80° whisky. The alcohol, morphine, cocaine and opium certainly made patients feel better, but the healing powers of these patent medicines was greatly exaggerated. Some of these medicines were actually dangerous, such as Kopp's Baby Friend, which contained sweetened water and morphine - guaranteed to 'calm your baby down.'

To sell their nostrums, successful salesmen organised 'medicine shows' and travelled on the road, presenting crowds with a variety of entertainment. In 1881, the most successful shows were assembled by John E 'Doc' Healy and 'Texas Charlie' Bigelow. Their sponsor was the Kickapoo Indian Medicine company, whose pitchmen would interrupt the show four or five times an hour to hawk their products. A 'shill' in the audience would buy a bottle of the product, drink it, and declare himself cured, then demand another bottle. Salesmen on the floor would only carry one or two bottles apiece to create the impression of frenzied buying; when they ran out, they'd have to run to the stage to get more product. Patent medicine was a profitable business, earning $3.5 million in 1859, and by 1904, the earnings had escalated to $74.5 million.

How did the patent medicine makers avoid prosecution for so long? Because of the 'red clause' in every advertising contract with the newspapers and magazines of the nation, which stated that if a state law regulating nostrums were passed, then the patent medicine maker's contract would become void. This discouraged editorialists from speaking out against the medicines; in fact, they often defended them. This continued until 1892, when the Ladies' Home Journal announced that it would no longer accept advertisements for patent medicines. This inspired Samuel Hopkins Adams, a writer ('muckraker') for Collier's Weekly in the 1900s, to begin a campaign against the patent medicine makers, saying that:

Gullible America will spend this year (1905) some 75 millions of dollars in the purchase of patent medicines. In consideration of this sum it will swallow huge quantities of alcohol, an appalling amount of opiates and narcotics, a wide assortment of varied drugs ranging from powerful and dangerous heart depressants to insidious liver stimulants; and, far in excess of all other ingredients, undiluted fraud.

His actions, along with the support of the Ladies' Home Journal and other publications, raised public awareness, and in 1906 Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act. This act created the Food and Drug Administration in Washington, DC, that gives its approval to consumable items. It also said that certain drugs, like morphine, opium, and cocaine, could only be sold on prescription. Most importantly, it required that any habit forming drug be clearly labelled. Even after the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed, this was not enough to stop the trade completely. Patent medicine could still be bought as late as the 1950s - makers of these nostrums would simply change the name of the product to avoid prosecution. However, they no longer enjoyed the free rein that they had in the 1800s and early 1900s.

Modern Medical Quackery

Medical quackery has not been wiped out; in fact, it's worse than ever. Americans spend about $20 billion per year on fraudulent devices and drugs. With New Age medicines and practices, the dissatisfaction and problems with health insurance, lax federal enforcement, and the Internet, it's easier than ever for charlatans to sell their wares without fear of prosecution. One of the biggest fallacies is that 'all-natural' is safe. 'Arsenic and hemlock are natural,' said Rich Cleland, advertising practices attorney for the Federal Trade Commission. 'It really is a consumer-beware market.' Why are people falling for these gimmicks? Experts say it's because of the popularity of alternative medicine; while some cures in alternative medicine are valid and have some medical basis, others are based upon mysticism and play upon the hopes of people who are in pain, and seemingly without any other option. Like in the long-ago 1700s, people are looking for a quick cure and don't have the money for doctors and hospitals.

Protecting yourself from Quackery

How do you keep yourself from becoming another victim of the unscrupulous? Be alert. Dr Stephen Barrett, founder of Quackwatch, a community watchdog site on the Internet, says:

We're really in quackery's golden age. Hundreds of thousands of people are being cheated every year.

The Federal Trade Commission has sent out letters to over a thousand operators of Internet sites to retract their claims, but have found only 28 of those have done so. The chances of finding a reliable source of alternative medicine on the Internet are pretty slim. Watch for these suspicious-sounding claims by the makers of a product:

  • The tonic, tincture or technological device is touted as a cure-all for a wide range of ailments.
  • The product is called a 'scientific breakthrough', 'miraculous cure', 'exclusive product', 'secret ingredient', 'ancient remedy' or other far-fetched term.

  • The manufacturer claims the government, medical profession or scientists have conspired to suppress the treatment.

  • Ads for the remedy rely on a lot of impressive-sounding, yet incomprehensible medical jargon to disguise the lack of scientific research supporting the product.

  • Undocumented case histories are used to claim amazing results.

  • The drug or device is only available from one source.

  • Payment is required in advance.

  • The promoter promises a money-back guarantee. (Good luck getting your money back from a fly-by-night operator.)

Please Note: h2g2 is not a definitive medical resource. If you have any health concerns you must always seek advice from your local GP. You can also visit NHS Direct or BBC Health Conditions.

1Invented by Antone van Leewenhoek in 1665.2When a doctor drained blood from a patient, the removal of four-fifths of the patient's blood was deemed acceptable. Blistering was the practice of placing caustic or hot substances on the flesh to draw out infections. Purgation was the administration of an emetic to induce vomiting or a laxative to purge the bowels.3An emporium in the US, notable for their early mail-order service.4A very interesting character. He had an extraordinary list of titles, the most recent of them being MD, but as far as the records of the AMA show, he was never graduated by any medical college in the US. Other titles claimed by Ghadiali were Doctor of Chiropractic, Doctor of Philosophy, Doctor of Legal Law (sic), and numerous other honours, including 'Fellow and Ex-Vice-President, Allied Medical Associations of America', 'Member and Ex-Vice-President, National Association of Drugless Practitioners', 'President, All Cults Medical Association', 'President, American Association of Spectro-Chrome Therapists', 'President, American Anti-Vivisection Society', 'Member Anti-Vaccination League of London', and 'Member, American Association of Orificial Surgeons'. During the war Ghadiali apparently received a commission in the New York Police Reserve, and most of his advertising featured a picture of him in uniform.

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