Medical history is brimming with stories of famous people whose discoveries, theories, and experiments advanced our medical knowledge and improved our understanding of human health. But there are also plenty of accounts of infamous quacks whose dubious “treatments” only served to line their own pockets.
As early as 1665, when a bubonic plague outbreak was sweeping through London, quacks were plying their unethical trade. The famous British surgeon Dale Ingram visited the city and remarked: “Every one [of the quacks in London] was at liberty to prescribe what nostrum he pleased, and there was scarce a street in which some antidote was not sold, under some pompous title.”
Medical scams are still a big problem today—from false weight-loss ads to infertility supplements to “miracle cure” products. Between January and August 2020, the FDA issued more than 100 warnings to firms selling COVID-19 nostrums.
Quacks (originally street sellers hawking their wares like noisy geese) tend to be business-minded people who use scare tactics to convince people to purchase products. Just like other con artists, these unscrupulous figures stretch ethics, morals, and the law to bypass healthy skepticism and gain their victims’ trust.
Often, quacks tell a story about an “elitist” medical establishment that suppresses true knowledge and leaves ordinary people behind. These dangerous claims can steal patient trust from licensed physicians and turn it over to medical con artists, who are always waiting with a secret “cure”—which is only available for a fee.
The five infamous quacks below can tell us a lot about quackery and how to spot it, especially for legitimate doctors treating patients who might have been, or might yet be, conned.
James Morisons and 'vegetable universal medicines'
James Morison (1770-1840) was a British businessman who thought he knew better than the medical establishment of his time. He claimed to have been experiencing “inexpressible suffering” for 35 years until he swallowed some homemade vegetable pills in 1822. Three years later, he set up a company to manufacture and sell his “vegetable universal medicines,” called Morison’s Pills.
In reality, these pills were far from being a universal medicine. In 1836, one of Morison’s resellers was convicted of manslaughter because a post-mortem exam found “large and excessive quantities of [Morison’s] pills” to be the cause of one man’s death.
Morison’s quack cure was strongly condemned by real doctors at the time.
The Lancet published attacks on Morison from respected physicians including the journal’s founding editor, Thomas Wakley. They were concerned that Morison’s vegetable pills would lead to more avoidable deaths.
The original snake oil salesman: Clark Stanley
Not much is known about Clark Stanley, the self-styled Rattlesnake King who claimed to have been born in 1854. But his exploits earned him a spot in history as the original snake oil salesman.
Stanley claimed that he had spent time with native Hopi medicine men who showed him the medical benefits of rattlesnake oil. He used the 1893 World’s Exposition in Chicago for self-promotion, cutting a live snake open in front of spectators. This buzz notwithstanding, Stanley’s snake oil turned out to be totally useless.
Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906 to stomp out snake oil salesmen like Stanley, and in 1917 a federal investigation finally brought his operation down.
Investigators discovered that Stanley’s snake oil was mostly just ordinary mineral oil and beef fat, flavored with red pepper and turpentine. He was fined $20 ($429 today) for fraud, a charge he did not dispute.
Daniel D. Palmer and the birth of chiropractic treatment
Daniel D. Palmer (1845-1913) came up with a treatment that many modern quacks along with legitimate alternative care providers practice today: chiropractic theory. After dabbling in magnetic healing, Palmer went looking for the single cause of all diseases. He claimed to have discovered the power of chiropractic treatment when he cured a janitor’s deafness by manipulating his spine.
Palmer promoted the new chiropractic theory as “an educational, scientific, religious system” that simultaneously teaches the faithful about “this world and the world to come.”
However, the medical benefits claimed by Palmer have never been verified.
Despite chiropractic treatment’s pseudoscientific origins, the practice has evolved substantially. Practitioners must pass a medical exam that’s similar to medical doctors, and there are now more than 100,000 chiropractors in the United States that treat more than 30 million Americans every year.
Still, while some studies have shown it can be an effective treatment for ailments like lower back pain, the science behind chiropractic care is not definitive and more research must be completed before it can escape the realm of pseudoscience.
William J. Bailey’s poisonous radium drink
William J. Bailey (1884-1949) used a favorite sales tactic of quacks throughout the ages to promote his cure-all drink: appealing to lost male virility. RadiThor, which consisted of radium dissolved in water, was sold as a cure-all, energy giver, and erection-maintainer in the 1920s.
The most famous victim of Bailey’s RadiThor drink was Eben Byers, a Pittsburgh socialite who became psychologically addicted to it after an injury—despite the fact that the product did not contain narcotics. Byers was known to drink one or two bottles of the poisonous drink every day for more than 3 years, telling all his friends about its benefits.
But radiation destroyed Byers’ skeleton, eventually eating away at his skull and jaw. He died in 1932 and the federal government reacted by shutting Bailey’s radium business down.
John R. Brinkley: the testicle debacle
An associate of William Bailey’s, John R. Brinkley (1885-1942) also leveraged men’s sexual insecurities to make a small fortune selling a highly unusual treatment. For just $750, Brinkley would transplant goats’ testicles into men’s scrotums to cure their infertility. In fact, Brinkley claimed that all men should undergo the procedure.
Not satisfied with cutting out goats’ testicles, Brinkley even offered premium customers the chance to get human testicles implanted in their bodies. He got the testicles from death row prisoners and charged patients’ $5,000 per operation.
The Journal of the American Medical Association called Brinkley out for his quackery, and eventually his medical license was revoked. Brinkley reacted by undermining the medical establishment and claiming persecution by elitist doctors. He whipped up popular support on the back of this message and was nearly elected Governor of Kansas from a write-in campaign.