10 Instances of Medical Quackery Throughout History

Dr. Kilmer's Complete Female Remedy from the 1880s will purify the blood and tone those pesky feminine nerves.
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­Researchers, doctors and laymen alike have long known of the power of the placebo. When people believe a sugar pill is going to cure their ills, they tend to feel better after taking one. Of course, if the malady is more serious than a head cold or anxiety, a sugar pill may trick your mind into believing in its curative powers, but the rest of the body won't be so easily be fooled.

The placebo effect depends upon the hyping and selling of a worthless bill of goods, and that's something that charlatans can deliver. Once you have a crowd believing that your jar of colored water will cure all their aches and pains, statistically about one-third of those who buy your product will be completely satisfied and spread the news of your miracle cure for you. By the time the remaining two-thirds catch on, you -- the fraud -- have moved on to the next town, the next cure or the next world.


For thousands of years, there wasn't much of a difference between scientific medical practices and medical quackery. The world was flat, the sky was poked full of holes and your diseases were caused by demons inside of you. There were many, many opinions on how to get those demons out.

Sometimes the practitioners believed in the miracle cures being touted, and sometimes fame and acclaim were the motivating factors (the money was just a nice benefit). Regardless, some medical quackeries throughout history stand out from the rest, and we'll look at 10 of those in this article. Take our word for it: This article will leave you feeling satisfied, refreshed and miraculously healthy.

10. The Original Snake-oil Medicine: Snake Oil

If you want to buy some snake liquor, try Ho Chi Minh City.
© iStockphoto.com/simongurney

­In 1905, there were more than 28,000 -- and possibly nearly twice that number -- patent medicines produced or marketed in the United States [source: Young]. These mixtures, potions and concoctions were generally useless but cost a pretty penny. There were a lot of ineffective medicines on the market, and behind each one was a silver-tongued scam artist.

One managed to establish brand-name recognition that lasts to this day. Clark Stanley billed himself as the "Rattlesnake King," gathering crowds by killing rattlesnakes while delivering his pitch. For 50 cents a bottle, you could cure your toothaches, neuralgia, ankle sprains and pretty much everything else. Stanley claimed his snake-oil medicine came straight from an Indian medicine man and that his blend of snake oils worked miracles.


When the Feds seized a shipment in 1917 and tested it, it was discovered that his snake oil was about 99 percent mineral oil and 1 percent beef fat, with traces of red pepper and turpentine thrown in the mix to give it a more medicinal smell. His business was shut down, but "snake oil" lives on in our lexicon to this day.

9. Child-calming Patent Medicines

Opium isn't, as it turns out, the baby's friend.
Julia Smith/Riser/Getty Images

It wasn't until 1962 that a drug had to be both safe and effective to be sold on the U.S. market [source: FDA]. In the 19th century, such standards were nonexistent, so the market was flooded with ointments, balms and tinctures that might be either safely ineffective or functionally dangerous. Falling into the latter category is an assortment of medicines that were purported to calm upset babies, allowing the infant -- and its parents -- to sleep soundly through the night. Such medicines abounded, with reassuring names such as Soothing Baby Syrup, Hooper's Adodyne: The Infant's Friend, Dr. Fahrney's Teething Syrup, Dr. Winslow's Soothing Syrup and Kopp's Baby Friend.

Desperate (or maybe just curious) parents eager for a full night's sleep turned to these patent medicines. They worked as advertised. A glance at the contents of Kopp's Baby Friend (fairly representative of all such nostrums) will tell you why: Its label boasted 8.5 percent alcohol and one-eighth grain sulfate of opium per ounce. The suggested dosing on the Kopp's label was on a graduated scale to account for your infant's growing size and tolerance to opiates -- "Dose for child 1 week old, 6 drops; … 1 month, 15 to 18 drops; … 12 months and over, 1 1/2 teaspoonful…"


There were reportedly many child deaths due to these narcotic formulas and likely many more miniature ­addicts. The American Medical Association publicized the dangers of using such products, and the popularity of narcotic infant soothers began to wane in the early 1900s.

8. Electromagnetic Coils

Get your abdominal belts here! Now with electromagnetic coils.
Mark Kauffman/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

­Before the FDA gained oversight of medical devices in 1932, business was fairly brisk for some outlandish and generally useless cure-all contraptions. From the 1860s to around the 1940s, one such device peddled to the people was an electromagnetic coil that -- you guessed it -- supposedly could cure pretty much everything. Not only did it improve your health, but it made you feel younger and even look more attractive, according to advertisements for the devices.

The devices had many different names (the I-ON-A-CO, the Theronoid and the Magnetone were all marketed in the 1920s and '30s), but all worked (wink) on basically the same principle: Iron in your body assists the transfer of oxygen between cells, and electricity supercharges the iron, thus providing your cells with more oxygen. Or something like that. The important part was that the results were "miraculous."


While electrical currents are still used today (though at higher power and lower expectations) to ease muscle ache and tendonitis, these early devices gained plenty of accolades from early users for curing everything from cancer to gout. Users of electromagnetic belts benefited greatly from the placebo effect. People believed the devices would make them feel more energetic and youthful, and so that is how many of them felt after using the devices.

To attain these results, one needed to first purchase the coil, then, in the comfort of one's own home, place the large coil of insulated wires around the waist, plug it in to a normal electrical outlet and receive the cure. Unlike our next item, it was refreshingly harmless.

7. Radioactive Water

A water with lemon and a dash of radium, coming right up.
David Crockett/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

At the beginning of the 20th century, springs that produced naturally hot "mineral water" were (and still are) quite popular. In 1903, it was discovered that many of these springs had radioactive water, so the natural conclusion was that radioactivity was good for you.

Soon these hot springs were being advertised as radium spas, and an entire industry was built on the supposedly curative powers of radiation. Reputable medical journals stated that radium slowed aging and cured insanity [source: Frame]. Once the U.S. surgeon general announced that radium could cure everything from malaria to diarrhea, the hucksters were off to the races.


So how did it work? Drinking radiated water carried the powerful life force of radioactive energy throughout your body, where it charged cells and rid the body of its waste.

There was no fancier way to be healthy in the 1920s than to take a long soak in a radioactive bath at a radium spa. Some enterprising souls began marketing radiating water crocks that allowed consumers to radiate their own water. Items like the Revigator and the Radium Emanator were embraced by Americans -- the Revigator sold several hundred thousand units in 1929 alone. These handy and chic househol­d devices could quickly make your water radioactive, enabling you to drink the six or so daily glasses of it as recommended by the manufacturers.

Before long, you could purchase radioactive beauty cream, toothpaste and ear plugs [source: Frame]. When well-known proponents of the water began falling ill and dropping dead, the radium craze began its decline.

6. Historical Baldness Cures

What's that you say? Never go against a Sicilian when baldness is on the line?
Holloway/The Image Bank/Getty Images

In the 19th century, men lost their hair at approximately the same rate they lost their money on baldness cures. Unfortunately, many hustlers had a far better understanding of generating sales for worthless products than of reseeding a barren scalp.

A t­onic marketed as Hall's Vegetable Sicilian Hair Renewer promised to feed the starved roots of your hair and to destroy the bacteria that allegedly caused hair loss. The formula for the tonic came from a mysterious Sicilian who, according to huckster Reuben P. Hall, once crossed paths with the proprietor. Hall must have crossed paths with another Sicilian later on, because the ingredients of the tonic changed around the turn of the century. One of the ingredients, lead, not only helped bring color to the hair, but also ensured that darkened hair would be admired by doctors and undertakers alike, since many customers fell ill to lead poisoning after using the product.


A competing baldness cure was Burnett's Cocoaine. Using the sort of sleight-of-hand that now gets street-level pharmacists killed, the makers of Burnett's Cocoaine didn't add cocaine to their product, but rather coconut oil (also spelled, ahem, "cocoa-nut oil"). No matter what was in the product, it didn't restore hair with the speed its trade name implied.

5. Animal Magnetism

German School/The Bridgeman Art Library/Getty Images

­Magnétisme animal was a special ability to correct imbalances in the universal fluid that flows through everything in this world, according to Franz Anton Mesmer, an 18th-century German physician who first studied this universal force-fluid in Vienna. Once his beliefs were no longer welcome in Vienna, Mesmer opened shop in Paris in 1777 and found plenty of ready believers.

Mesmer advanced the idea that health problems were caused by blockages in the body that prevented this life-fluid from flowing where it needed to go. Through the use of magnets, Mesmer believed he could clear up these blockages. Mesmer then discovered that he himself didn't need the magnets -- he, as it turned out, was one of the few who possessed animal magnetism.


Mesmer put on full-blown productions, featuring chanting, music, special lighting and stagecraft. During his sessions, he would make magnetic passes over the patient's body, allegedly redirecting the flow of the fluid, and serving as a conduit for the forces of the universe to find their proper way into the patient. When the time was right, the patient would have what Mesmer called a magnetic crisis, which meant the problem would quickly worsen in the form of a jolt of sorts, and then be cured. The effect of the presentation was so intoxicating that its effect now claims his name: mesmerizing.

Mesmer was eventually investigated on order of King Louis XVI, and soon after, he left Paris for parts unknown. As the next page will prove, it takes more than a magnetic personality to make it in this world -- it takes an electric hairbrush.

4. Electric Hairbrushes

Now all you need is an electric flesh brush.
Chris Clinton/Digital Vision/Getty Images

­While most quackeries have at least some truth to their claims (for instance, radioactive water was truly radioactive), the same can't be said for Dr. George A. Scott's electric hairbrush. Uncharged and unchargeable, this "electric" hairbrush that debuted in 1880 was in fact slightly magnetized. Regardless, plenty of people bought the devices that carried the promise to cure almost everything. Dr. S­cott must have realized that it was a stretch to believe an electric hairbrush could cure blood poisoning, so he developed electric flesh brushes, as well as electric curlers (healing electric curlers, that is).

Scott was wise enough to caution owners of the electric brush not to share it with anyone, which would diminish the brush's powers. So, if you complained that your electric brush didn't work, you could be told to look closer to home for the reason your electric brush has lost its power. Additionally, the "one-person, one-brush" rule naturally meant that everyone in the household had to have his or her own brush.


Instructions for his brushes also advised, "People of sedentary habits and weakened nerve powers will find it a valuable companion" [source: American Artifacts]. Perhaps the good doctor hoped that his preferred clientele would be too lazy and upset to demand refunds. In any case, the electric brush fell out of favor sometime around 1890. Next, we'll learn why sometimes men should just be satisfied with being all man.

3. Testicular Implants

Having trouble in bed? Your goat is not.
Martin Harvey/Photodisc/Getty Images

­In 1917, a Kansas man confided to his doctor that he was suffering from ­impotence. The patient noted that his goats, however, seemed to have all the sexual vitality in the world. What would happen, the desperate patient asked the doc, if you put the goat's reproductive glands in me?

Well, if you're a lifelong fraudster who just bought a medical degree from a mail-order catalog, you have no choice but to perform the transplant, and that's just what Dr. John R. Brinkley did. The patient believed he was cured, and word got around fast. As the good doctor whittled away on the local goat population and spliced onto the town's human male population, word spread around Kansas (and probably around goat pens as well). Before long, people came from far and wide to pay Dr. Brinkley to place goat glands onto or into the human testicle, which would in essence absorb the goat glands and begin functioning again, according to Brinkley.


There's no press like great press, especially when you're running a questionable goat-testicle-implanting business and your latest satisfied customer is the publisher of the Los Angeles Times. Of course, by this time, not only could the operation cure impotence, but high blood pressure, mental illness and everything else. Brinkley bought a radio station and began beaming out 1,000 watts of his message of hope, and listeners responded. Before his practice was shut down, Brinkley grafted goat testicles onto 16,000 men -- a world record [source: Schwarcz]. Next up: Let it bleed.

2. Bloodletting

A bloodletting depicted in a 1356 manuscript, "Traite de Medecine," by Aldebrande de Florence
French School/The Bridgeman Art Library/Getty Images

If you think waiting for hours in a small examination room for a doctor is a frustrating experience, imagine waiting for your doctor to check his astrological charts to determine when he could schedule your next bloodletting.

Based partly on an ancient Greek belief that all forms of sickness were results of imbalances in the humors (phlegm, yellow bile, black bile and blood), bloodletting has been the quackery of choice for more than 2,500 years. To make it in the quackery business as long as bloodletting did, you have to make bold statements about curing sickness -- and occasionally change the explanation of how the cure works. Bloodletting, according to different proponents through the ages, allows your blood to breathe, pleases Jesus and Yahweh, removes demons and works in relation to the constellations in the sky.


When monks and priests got out of the bloodletting business, barbers stepped in, willing to take an inch off the top and the foot off at the ankle. Trained doctors in that time didn't practice surgery, and only took up the practice once there was a reestablishment of independent roles for the barber and the surgeon. (Barbers kept the red-and-white pole in the breakup, however.)

When the first president of the United States, George Washington, fell ill in late 1799, he had more than half his blood removed in the course of 10 hours, certainly bringing about a speedier demise [source: Vadakan]. Falling out of favor by the 1850s, bloodletting was still practiced in the United States into the 1920s [source: Starr].

1. Lobotomies

No one expects an ice pick through the eye.
2008 HowStuffWorks

The first modern lobotomy performed to cure mental illness occurred in 1935. Further experimentation by a psychiatrist, Dr. Walter Freeman, resulted in a 10-minute method that separated the frontal lobe by accessing the brain with an ice pick by way of the eye sockets. The results were incredibly random. Some patients claimed to feel cured of mental illness after having the procedure, while others were left in a state of passiveness, regression or neurological devastation that required around-the-clock care for the rest of their lives.

Freeman hyped lobotomies as a cure not only for mental illness but also headaches and misbehaving children. Freeman traveled the country, performing lobotomies wherever and whenever he could. He performed the haphazard surgery so quickly that he once lobotomized 25 people in a single day [source: NPR].

The procedure peaked in usage sometime i­n the 1950s and tapered off shortly after that, due to serious misgivings among the medical and psychiatric community, as well as the emergence of psychoactive drugs that alleviated many of the symptoms of mental illness Freeman claimed to be able to cure. After lobotomizing around 2,500 people, Freeman retired and died five years later [source: NPR]. His final patient died of a brain hemorrhage after being lobotomized.

To read more about bizarre medical myths, see the next page.

Lots More Information

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  • Boeree, George C., PhD. "A Brief History of the Lobotomy."2001 (Dec. 10, 2008) http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/lobotomy.html
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