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Quack History

Quacks in History



 Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
 (Frank Morgan in The Wizard of Oz)

 Some quacks are so famous that their names have become generic, as Kleenex is for facial tissues (when is the last time someone asked you for a "facial tissue?"). To this day in Australia, people talk of “Hoovering the carpet.”  And worldwide, Mesmerism is the term of choice to describe a nut who has persuaded the sick and gullible to try wacky and useless nostrums. Franz Anton Mesmer was a real person, and by some accounts quite a gifted healer, who lived some two hundred years ago. He may have been the first really successful clinical hypnotherapist. He certainly made a name for himself and a good living to boot from his "specialty," which the great musical satirist Tom Lehrer would call "diseases of the rich." 

 Two questions must be asked of his methods, and the methods of all quacks, and indeed the methods of all physicians: are they safe, and are they effective? Mesmer is not known to have killed anybody. Well, maybe he diverted people away from scientific medicine and harmed them in so doing.  But were medical doctors any better? Arguably they were worse, perhaps much worse. Remember that around this time of Voltaire and George Washington, doctors did not even wash their hands between patients. They would go from lancing a boil to delivering a baby and from dissecting a rotting cadaver to doing crude cataract surgery with no anesthetic. Doctors would not wash their hands for another century and even then obstetrician Ignaz Samuelveiss, M.D., lost his reputation, his career, and his sanity in a failed battle to convince a stubborn, arrogant and barbaric profession of well-educated physicians that they were actually spreading disease more than they were curing it.

 When we look at what the regular, fully educated doctors were offering (bleeding with dirty lancets and pond leeches, for example) Mesmer doesn't look all that bad.  Doctors of the eighteenth century used outhouses like everyone else, and certainly no less often, and none of them washed their hands before surgery or between patients. Even today, half of all physicians surveyed don't wash their hands after using the toilet. I'll bet you'd love a reference for that statistic, because you don't believe it. Of course you can research it at your library and see for yourself. While you are at it, hunt this one down: there have been over one million accidental hypodermic needle pricks each year in the United States. It is believed that fewer than a third are reported, so that makes possibly three million or more, says the Centers for Disease Control. (Okay, okay: USA Weekend, April 8-10, 1994).  In an age of AIDS and hepatitis, this is the carelessness that quack legend is made from. Yet all these are certified medical professionals: the phlebotomists, nurses, and doctors.

 Back to the past again, to the time of Mesmer. One of the common remedies of the 18th and 19th centuries was mercury. Mercury is well known today to be a toxic heavy metal, the very vapors of which are dangerous. Any junior high science teacher knows this, and has in her lab classroom a mercury clean-up kit, for immediate, safe isolation of any spill, no matter how small. No longer will my grade-school friends and I be allowed to play with "quicksilver," mercury's common name. No longer may anyone roll the heavy, cold, shiny liquid about in their hands and try to coat pennies with it. It is too dangerous.

 Yet in the not too far past, mercury, often as the drug calomel, was administered to countless innocent and trusting patients, not by Mesmer or any other oddball, but by the family doctor. Well, we can dismiss the dark ages of medicine as over and done with, right? Wrong. Mercury, making up over half of a so-called "silver" amalgam dental filling, is still placed into the living bone tissue of adults and children, where it may well stay, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for ten years of more. Some of my mercury amalgam fillings lasted me from childhood into fatherhood.  If a science teacher encouraged a 13 year old put mercury into his mouth, it would be gross negligence, bordering on criminal.  Dentists do it every day.

 Who, then, are the quacks?

 Moving into the mid 19th century, we run into entire flocks of medical wackos. In this age of free-market anything, prescribed medicines and patent remedies shared a common feature: they were poisons. Along comes a series of surprisingly well educated medical doctors who rebelled against their own profession by recommending vegetarianism, fasting, water and sunlight, and, gasp, even exercise to cure the many diseases of the day.  Whether it was James Calab Jackson, MD, of Dansville, NY's "Home on the Hill" spa, or the much better known John Harvey Kellogg, MD of Battle Creek and cereal fame, these quacks were neither fleecing nor killing their patients. Following the cardinal rule of healing, "First do no harm," the naturopathic branch of health science was far ahead of its time in many ways. For instance, "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" would have had to be a naturopath, for no drug school would even accept a woman as a student in her day. The nature-cure schools did, graduating the first female American physicians in history.

 All these women were quacks, of course, because they advocated fasting, water cures, sunlight, exercise and good diet. You will learn of them in detail in The Greatest Health Discovery, by the American Natural Hygiene Society.

 There are two dramas about medicine that you will never see produced on Broadway or made into TV movies. One is Dr. Jack Kevorkian's satire of hospitals' mistakes, and the other is The Doctor's Dilemma, by no less than one of the most distinguished playwrights since Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw. Shaw observes that quacks and regular doctors are about equally dangerous and equally effective, and probably equally useless. It is in Shaw's prefaces to his plays, more than the plays themselves, that one often learns the most about the man and his ideas.  The prefaces are not performance material, but the preface to The Doctor's Dilemma will hold your attention just fine.

 Far more scathing attacks on modern medicine's dangers will be found in Confessions of a Medical Heretic, by Robert Mendelssohn, MD, Medical Nemesis, by Ivan Illich, and Who Is Your Doctor and Why, by Alonzo Shadman, MD.  Most people will never read these books, as they are too disturbing. I have an entire family full of doctor-worshippers. Perhaps you do, too. Doctors command far more respect than they've earned.  It amounts to a religion, almost a perverse opposite of Christian Science, when we have so much faith in people. Odd thought though it may be, consider that you may well be born without being baptized, and die without seeing a rabbi or priest. But you will not even exist as a human being until some doctor signs your birth certificate, and you are not free from the IRS until some doctor signs your death certificate.

 Between these events, doctors enjoy high incomes, high social status and immense authority. Like priests, says Dr. Mendelshonn. Ralph Nader, the nation's foremost consumer advocate, has been quoted as saying that the medical profession kills nearly 300,000 Americans each year. Even if Nader exaggerates by an extremely improbable 95%, that's a horrible number of funerals caused by physicians.  Napoleon said that in the next world, doctors would have more deaths to account for than generals. Author, endocrinologist and ayurvedic physician Deepak Chopra, MD, has said that more people live off cancer than die from it.

 Grit your teeth as you read that, or toss this book into the dumpster. It doesn't matter to me. When ready, the books I referred to above will still be in your library system, somewhere, waiting on the shelves for you to get them out by interlibrary loan.

 It is easy for Hollywood to put together a fictional film (bordering on the libelous) such as The Road to Wellsville, which makes a mockery of Dr. Harvey Kellogg. Television presents us with many doctor soap operas and prime-time-wasting doctor shows such as ER. Invariably, these politically correct programs show as little of the realities of medical practice as An Officer and a Gentleman or Top Gun show about real life in the Navy.  Doctors are wonderful, wounded warriors, we are to believe, battling against the twin evils of ignorance and frequent commercial breaks.

 The fact that so many of those commercials are for patent medicines would lead a skeptic to suspect conflict of interest. After all, if you were a pharmaceutical company, spending more on advertising that you do on research, would you sponsor any part of an anti-doctor show?  This explains why a Learning Channel expose on Mesmer would be easy to produce and sell. When is the last time you saw a favorable news account, anywhere, in any media, about quacks?

 Of course, it's in the name itself. "Quack" is a condemnatory word. Even eye-witnessed murderers are called "suspects" well into the legal process. "Quacks," by definition, cannot be good. Even witches, a familiar childhood symbol of evil, are cut more slack: "Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?" Dorothy was asked. No one has ever asked, "Are you a good quack, or a bad quack?"

 There have been an embarrassingly large number of "good" quacks, even in recent medically-dominated history. It is not easy to be the small mammal in the Age of Doctorsaurs, but a persistent minority, generally medical doctors themselves, have rebelled against their own training. 

Copyright C 2004 and previous years Andrew W. Saul.

Andrew Saul is the author of the books FIRE YOUR DOCTOR! How to be Independently Healthy (reader reviews at ) and DOCTOR YOURSELF: Natural Healing that Works. (reviewed at )

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Andrew W. Saul


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