American Journal of Law & Medicine

Quackery.(The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act: Regulation at a Crossroads)

Everyone condemns medical quackery. Government regulators seek to protect us from it. Alternative providers strive to distance themselves from it. Orthodox medicine wants to stamp it out.

The question is: What constitutes "quackery"? How do we distinguish quacks from mainstream practitioners? Even more problematic, how do we distinguish between quackery, which everyone agrees is beyond the pale and therefore should be fair game for sanction, and practices that, while unorthodox, should be tolerated in the interests of promoting medical progress and patient choice? These are particularly challenging questions now, when a number of factors are combining to undermine the hegemony of mainstream medicine, when some of the same forces that spurred the growth of quackery in the 19th century are remerging, and when neo-conservatives are clamoring for greater freedom of choice for health care consumers.

This article begins with a brief history of quackery in America and the factors that encourage its growth. The article then attempts to distinguish between quackery and acceptable medical practice. The article concludes by discussing how best to protect patients from quackery.


The origin of the term "quackery" is obscure. One theory is that it comes from the Dutch word "quacksalber," which means "quackery" in Dutch. (1) The term became widely used in the United States during the 19th century. Then, as now, it was derogatory. (2) It described hucksters, charlatans, and snake oil salesmen. (3) Nineteenth-century quacks included the Thompsonians, who touted the virtues of steam baths and puke weed, (4) and homeopaths, who, according to Paul Starr, "saw disease primarily as a matter of spirit":

   [W]hat occurred inside the body did not follow physical laws. The 
   homeopaths had three central doctrines. They maintained first that 
   diseases could be cured by drugs which produced the same symptoms 
   when given to a healthy person. This was the homeopathic "law of 
   similars"--like cures like. Second, the effects of drugs could be 
   heightened by administering them in minute doses. The more diluted 
   the dose, the greater the "dynamic" effect. And third, nearly all 
   diseases were the result of a suppressed itch, or "psora." (5) 

Quacks concocted and hawked patent medicines, including Hamlins Wizard Oil, James Soothing Syrup (which contained heroin), Lungardia (containing, among other things, turpentine and kerosene), and Tuberculene (which contained creosote). (6) Benjamin Franklin's mother-in-law devised "Widow Read's Ointment for the Itch." (7) The first successful prosecution under the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 was against the maker of "Cuforhedake Brane-Fude." (8)

Yet the 19th century quacks were not simply unscrupulous entrepreneurs who took advantage of gullible patients. They emerged in response to serious shortcomings of mainstream American medicine. In the early 19th century, orthodox practitioners emulated Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. (9) Rush and his disciples advocated three principal remedies for whatever ailed the patient: phlebotomy or bleeding, the use of purgatives, and blistering with caustic poultices. (10) Bleeding was necessary, Rush believed, because disease resulted from "morbid excitement caused by capillary tension." (11) In fact, bleeding just served to weaken patients, often hastening or assuring their deaths. Purging was accomplished with calomel, a powder of mercury chloride, which caused a "heavy flow of saliva, bleeding gums, mouth sores, tooth loss, and an unfettered, bloody evacuation of the bowels." (12) Rather than aiding patients, it caused dehydration. Blistering simply caused pain. In the words of one historian of quackery, "Rush's medical theories were unfortunately both archaic and lethal." (13)

In the meantime, illness and injury were rampant. The germ theory of disease had not yet been discovered. Sanitation and good nutrition were virtually unknown. Hospitals were charnel houses. (14)

Faced with unresolved disease and horrific standard treatments, it is not surprising that many people sought relief by going to what might be considered quacks. Patent medicines were milder than the purgatives, and often contained soothing ingredients like alcohol and opium. (15) Homeopathy used tiny amounts of active substances that produced few ill effects. (16) Even the electrical gadgetry that captivated the public toward the end of the 19th century usually did not cause serious injury. (17) Moreover, the quacks ventured into rural areas and frontier lands devoid of trained physicians. (18)

The quacks also appealed to the anti-elitist sentiment of many Americans. During the presidency of Andrew Jackson, a movement led by the herbalist Samuel Thompson succeeded in repealing most of the state medical licensure laws. (19) Orthodox practitioners were viewed as being more interested in preserving their turf than in upholding scientific truth. "Idealists cast the triumph of medical professionalism as the protection of vulnerable clients from the laissez-faire jungle; cynics, or realists, regard it rather as the raising of a monopolistic, self-serving oligarchy upon the backs of the sick." (20) Quackery also resonated with the American spirit of self-help. Patent medicines, "presented as standardized, were accepted by consumers because they were purportedly reliable, milder than the doctor's prescription, easy to take and provided the means for personalized choice and personalized administration. These were desired qualities that enabled men and women to take care of themselves without requiring professional help." (21) This gave rise to the phenomenon of "over-the-counter" medications--preparations that could be bought without a doctor's prescription. The trade association for manufacturers of over-the-counter products, the Proprietary Association, started out in the 19th century as the lobbying group for purveyors of patent medicines. (22)

What is striking is that so many of the conditions that gave rise to quackery in the 19th century are present today. (23) After a half-century of major therapeutic breakthroughs in the form of antibiotics and vaccines, medical progress seems to have slowed. No cures have been found for the major killer diseases. Treatments, such as invasive surgery and chemotherapy, can be harsh. Promised advances in genomic medicine remain elusive. Patients who have tried standard approaches to no avail or who are skeptical or frightened of them may feel they have nothing to lose by trying unorthodox alternatives.

Another factor that may drive patients toward quackery is the commercialization of mainstream medicine. As Timothy Jost pointed out in 1995, physicians "increasingly view themselves as businessmen engaged in commerce rather than as professionals...." (24) The premium placed on patient volume by managed care produces assembly-line medicine where physicians spend little time with patients. In contrast, observes Michael Young, "[m]ost quacks manage a superb 'bedside manner.' Since they can't really provide a cure if major disease is present, they specialize in promises, sympathy, consideration, concerns, and reassurance. The patient responds to such attention." (25) It is supremely ironic that the victims of a practice condemned for its rapaciousness should prize it for the tender way in which it treats them.

A related factor is the high cost of standard medical care. One reason that some health insurance plans have begun to cover complimentary and alternative medicine ("CAM"), for example, is that they expect CAM to save them money. (26) Chiropractors are often the primary health care providers in poor and rural communities that cannot afford to support a regular physician's practice. (27)

Quackery also can help promote patient privacy. Patent medicines were developed in the 19th century in part to permit patients to obtain treatment for embarrassing problems without having to meet face-to-face with or identify themselves to a physician. (28) This is one of the main reasons for the popularity of dietary supplements and internet pharmacies, (29) which are sources of quack remedies.

Nineteenth-century quacks often exploited religious beliefs. For example, Mesmerism, the idea that healing could be accomplished by putting people into trances, was popular with a number of New England Universalist ministers, (30) and connected with the broader faith-based healing movement. (31) Many of these beliefs survive today, in sects like Christian Science and Jehovah's Witnesses. Modern faith-based practitioners, for example, promote "remote prayer" (32) and the laying-on of hands as effective therapeutic techniques. …

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