Nursing Outtakes

Quacks in Early Modern Europe

Quacks are the greatest liars in the world except their patients.
Benjamin Franklin  

Quack, in the sense of a medical impostor, is a shortening of the old Dutch quacksalver (spelled kwakzalver in the modern Dutch), which originally meant a person who cures with home remedies, and then came to mean one using false cures or knowledge. Female quacks were known as “petticoat quacks”.

As in earlier times, in early modern Europe ‘quack’ doctors offered their talents right next to legitimately, professionally trained physicians, making them arch enemies. In England, Thomas Linacre (c. 1460-1524) led a small group of physicians in 1518 to petition King Henry VIII (1491-1547) to establish (similar to some found in other European countries) the College of Physicians in London (known as the Royal College of Physicians by 1674). They asked for the authority to grant licenses to men qualified to practice the medical arts and to punish those who were not (but practiced anyway!)

‘Horse Montebacks’ were quacks (often itinerant peddlers) advertising their concoctions from the saddle of their horse. They sold their wares with a lot of fanfare, moving on before their questionable powders, pills, and tonics were found to be useless, or worse. In a 1783 advertisement in the Bristol Press, a certain Mr. Farland claimed he could cure:

Broken bodies…in six weeks without trusses…without incision…all Diseases of the eye even when blind…Hare-lip in eight days…venereal disease of ever so long-standing.

Some quack healers might claim special abilities or skills, such as bone setting and urine-casting (“piss-prophets”). There were also “ass doctors” who thought all diseases must be expelled through the anus. It was a high peak of quack medicine in early modern Europe. Some even achieved a degree of fame, such as Sally Mapp, or Crazy Sal the ‘bone-setter’ (d. 1737). James Graham (1745-94) set up his miraculous Temple of Hyman in London, supposed to help couples with their sexual problems.

Quackery, however, is not limited to the early modern European era. We have ‘qualified’ physicians today who prescribe drugs made by pharmaceutical companies in which they own stock and perform questionable procedures, some only because that is what they have the most training in and not because the patient actually needs it. The rush of unnecessary hysterectomies performed in the 1970s on women who didn’t really need one is one example. This seems more rampant in the US and Mexico. If you want to see some examples of pure quackery, check out YouTube’s botched plastic surgeries.

Every doctor and nurse can be a potential quack (though most aren’t, thank goodness!). But it pays to interview your healthcare provider, ask for credentials and get references before you let them do anything to you or want to prescribe as the quack tradition continues on, only now, some have licenses. Even if you are a doctor or nurse, you still need to check, especially if the practitioner won’t speak to you as an equal.

The TV quack shows also continue to allow quack doctors to peddle their wares without any inquiry as to their effectiveness. It seems as though quackery will never end as long as people are willing to give up their autonomy to someone they should be able to trust and they want a quick cure.

©2020 Guiomar Goransson