The field of medical technology is constantly changing, and scientific discoveries have led to some incredible advances. But in the absence of a cure, entrepreneurs have tried throughout history to capitalize on the hopes of the sick and their loved ones, getting them to buy products that do nothing, or make the illness worse. Quack medicine has a long history. While drugs and pharmaceuticals are more regulated nowadays than ever before, it’s interesting to look back at what “doctors” could get away with. Here’s a look at quack medicine through the years.
Marketed as the extract of slaughtered rattlesnakes, snake oil liniment was actually just mineral oil with some pepper, turpentine, and beef grease thrown in. But it was sold as a so-called cure for anything and everything from muscle aches and burns to dental issues. Created by Clark Stanley, snake oil was just one of the dozens of “patent medicines” that were essentially just somebody trying to make a quick buck by claiming he had the definitive cure-all product. Stanley’s pitch was pretty convincing. He would kill rattlesnakes in front of a large crowd while peddling his “medicine,” and a lot of folks believed him.
Kopp’s and other child-calming patent medicines were meant for frantic parents who just wanted their babies to go to sleep. And they worked, but for a terrifying reason. These “meds” had alcohol contents of 8.5 percent to 10 percent, along with opium. It’s one thing to rub some brandy on a teething child’s gums, and another to dose it with heroin. This type of soother led to child deaths and addiction issues, and eventually it stopped being sold in the early 1900s.
Trepanning is essentially drilling a hole in a person’s head to cure mental illness and allow evil demons to escape. Although the practice exists in modern medicine (usually to relieve pressure on the brain or to perform neurosurgery, and done with sedation!), it has not been proven effective against demons. Although many doctors who performed this procedure may not have been intentional quacks, their lack of success in ridding the world of baleful spirits lands them on this list.
Before there was Viagra, there was Dr. John R. Brinkley, who set out to help men suffering from impotence. He performed xenotransplantation surgery, which essentially meant he replaced his patients’ testicular glands with goat testicles. This practice was inspired by a Kansas man who felt he was lacking in sexual vitality, but noticed that his goats did not have the same problem. Brinkley jumped at the chance to peddle his new technique to men everywhere, and performed an estimated 16,000 implant surgeries before he was shut down.
Imagine you are diagnosed with a mental disorder, or even just headaches or behavior issues. Then imagine that to cure you, somebody takes out your brain, puts it in a high-speed blender, and pops it back in. Voilà! You’ve just had a lobotomy. Technically, lobotomies consisted of separating the frontal lobe from the brain with an ice pick inserted into the eye sockets, but the effect was very similar to your brain in a blender. Results varied with patients. Some claimed to be cured; others were left with severe mental deficiencies or died of brain hemorrhages.
An enterprising American doctor named Elisha Perkins decided he had an innovative way to cure inflammation, rheumatism, and any pain in the head or face. He designed “tractors” — steel and brass three-inch rods with pointy ends — that he claimed were actually made of mysterious electromagnetic alloys. He would apply the points to the ailing body part and leave it there for approximately 20 minutes in order to draw out the “noxious electrical fluid” that was causing the suffering. Shockingly it didn’t work, and Perkins met his own ironic death several years later after he went to New York to sell his new antiseptic medicine for the yellow fever epidemic. He contracted the disease and died four weeks later.
Without penicillin, there was little to do about the sexually transmitted disease syphilis, which was widespread until the 20th century. Some doctors decided that dosing patients with mercury and arsenic — extremely dangerous toxins –would solve the problem. Not surprisingly, these methods were largely unsuccessful, and usually worsened symptoms or presented the patient with a whole new host of problems.
No, it’s not the drawing out of disease through mutual attraction and lust, although that would be pretty cool. German physician Franz Anton Mesmer decided in the 18th century that magnets could clear blockages in the body that were the root of disease and pain, and that he possessed the rare quality of animal magnetism. He would basically just pass his hands over a “patient” (who was really just an actor) while chanting and flashing special lights. The show would end with a dramatic jolt, and the patient would be cured!
Hugs do have their own recuperative power, but it’s fairly likely they can’t cure real diseases. Throughout the 18th century and beyond, “healers” would touch, stroke, and lay their hands on their patients to draw out whatever ailments were inside them. Sometimes it was more like near-touching, as they dealt with the “energy fields” instead. Yes, it was pretty creepy, and no, it didn’t work.
Back in the early 1900s, it was thought that because hot springs had restorative effects when you sat in their waters, they must also be great to drink. The “doctors” claimed that flushing your system with radioactive energy would charge your cells and eliminate what ailed you. They claimed radioactive water could cure everything from insanity to diarrhea, and even slow the effects of aging. Radioactive water began to decline in popularity when its proponents began dying (ostensibly from exposure to radioactivity).