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Notable Quacks Throughout History

by Guy McCardle

August 19, 2011

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Donate Quackery, as noted by our friends over at Quackwatch, is derived from the word quacksalver (someone who boasts about his salves). Many dictionaries define quack as "a pretender to medical skill; a charlatan" and "one who talks pretentiously without sound knowledge of the subject discussed." These definitions imply purposeful deception by the practitioner. A thorough study of the topic, however, reveals varying degrees of deception to be afoot. Some promoters sincerely believe in the effectiveness their methods.

What follows are the stories of five well known questionable medical providers throughout history. Read their stories and decide for yourself whether you feel they qualify to be labeled quacks or not.

Paul Chamberlen (1635-1717) He was the purported inventor of the “Anodyne Necklace”. This was a device placed around a baby’s neck to prevent infant death during teething. It claimed to do so by helping infants "cut their teeth," as the popular conception at the time was that infant mortality was caused by stress resulting from the growth of the infant's first set of teeth. Chamberlen deserves a thorough skeptical evaluation for preying and capitalizing on the grief and terror of parents who were more often than not during this period resigned to the fact that their children would be more likely to die in infancy than to make it to adulthood. Incredibly, these teething rings are still around today despite a total lack of evidence of their efficacy, in the form of these amber teething necklaces.

Albert Abrams (1863 " 1924) Abrams was an American doctor who was well known during his lifetime for developing medical machinery that he claimed would cure just about any disease or ailment. He was the inventor of the Dynamizer; a machine he claimed could diagnose any known disease from a single drop of blood or alternatively the subject's handwriting. To work the Dynamizer, the operator would attach an electrode to the forehead of an assistant who was stripped bare to the waist. The assistant would face West under dim lights and his abdomen was struck repeatedly with a mallet. The vibrations coming off the assistant’s abdomen would indicate to the doctor the nature of the disease. As you might imagine, the legitimate medical community was extremely skeptical and concerned over the growing popularity of Abram’s treatments. As a test of the Dynamizer, a skeptic sent an Abrams practitioner a drop of blood for analysis through the mail. The diagnosis of the patient turned out to be malaria, syphilis, diabetes and cancer. Upon receiving this diagnosis, the skeptic revealed that the source of the blood was a healthy rooster.

D.D. Palmer (1845 " 1913) Daniel David Palmer was the father of chiropractic. His primary theories of healing were mainly inspired by two incidents.

1. He whacked a deaf janitor with a book during some witty banter, and a few days later the man claimed he could hear better.

2. He manipulated an undisclosed patient’s spine and “cured” her vague “heart trouble”.

Based solely on these two questionable incidents, Palmer postulated that there was a fluid called “innate intelligence” flowing through the body. This fluid can supposedly cure any ailment and can be made to flow more easily by unblocking pathways through manipulation of the spine. This led to his unified theory of disease: "A subluxated vertebra... is the cause of 95 percent of all diseases... The other five percent is caused by displaced joints other than those of the vertebral column.” Chiropractic remains a questionable practice to this day.

William J.A. Bailey (1884 " 1949) Bailey was a Harvard University dropout and self-proclaimed doctor who never attended medical school. He believed that radium added to drinking water could be used to treat dozens of conditions, from mental illness and headaches to diabetes, anemia, constipation, and asthma. In 1918 he invented the patent medicine Radithor, essentially a solution of radium in regular water, which he asserted would help invigorate tired patients. Radithor was advertised as "A Cure for the Living Dead" as well as "Perpetual Sunshine". Bailey’s most notable patient was Eben Byers, a wealthy industrialist, who drank 1400 bottles of Radithor before having his jaw fall off and subsequently dying from radiation poisoning. Upon Byers’ death, it was discovered that the radium had eaten massive holes in his brain and skull.

John R. Brinkley (1885-1942) Brinkley was known as the “goat gland” doctor. One day a gentleman approached him at his clinic and asked Brinkley if he could fix someone who was “sexually weak”. Brinkley responded by joking that the patient would have no problem if he had "a pair of those buck (goat) glands in you". The patient then begged Brinkley to try the operation, which Brinkley did, for $150. He went on to perform over 16,000 such operations. The operation was performed by opening the scrotal sac and placing a goat’s testicle alongside the man’s. It was not attached in way, it just sat there. The man’s scrotum was sewn up, and he was on his way. Brinkley is sometimes credited with establishing the first radio advice talk show in order to advertise himself and his services to as many potential patients as possible.

During the height of his success, Brinkley had amassed millions of dollars, a mansion and several fancy cars. He made a nearly successful run for the governorship of the state of Kansas in 1932. Eventually he was stripped of his license to practice medicine. He died sick and nearly penniless, as a result of the large number of malpractice, wrongful death and fraud suits brought against him.

by Guy McCardle

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