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The Dutch word, "quacksalber," "quicksilver" in English, refers to the silvery element mercury. In the 1500s, a physician by the name of Paracelsus made a salve with a bit of mercury in it. He applied it to a syphilitic patient's rash and it supposedly cleared up. Other physicians rebutted the claim saying it had no effect. They called him a “quack” for using quacksalber…thus a new insult was born. Some say dentists using mercury fillings were the first quacks. However, no mercury fillings from that era have ever been found.
The definitions for a quack are varied, but basically it boils down to “…one who misrepresents their ability and experience in diagnosis and treatment of disease or effects to be achieved by their treatment.” Actually being called a quack in those days was actually not the worst thing a physician could be called. Because of their profession, which often involved life and death, they were at constant risk of being labeled a witch.
“Snake Oil” is another word closely associated with quackery. It comes from the 19th century American traveling medicine shows. Snake oil salesmen hawked their wares with claims their bogus cure-all elixir potions could cure any ailment. Today, the term still generally refers to fraudulent medicinal products.
In earlier times, such medicines were called nostrum remedium, meaning "our remedy" in Latin. They were also known as proprietary or “patent” medicines and were for the most part trademarked, but not actually patented.
Most were made with similar ingredients; vegetable extracts mixed with alcohol, morphine, opium, small amounts of mercury and cocaine. They could be dangerous concoctions since their production was unregulated and prescribed for children as well as adults. Unfortunately, many deaths were attributed to their ingestion.
Quack medicines had been prevalent in the British Empire for centuries, including the American colonies. After the American Revolution, quack products began to flood the American market. They had colorful names like Daffy's Elixir Salutis for "colic and griping," Dr. Bateman's Pectoral Drops, and John Hooper's Female Pills and were sold by local merchants.
There were potions asserting cures for venereal diseases, tuberculosis, indigestion, arthritis,baldness, “female complaints" and even cancer. There were even gadgets supposedly capable of enhancing a woman’s bust or men’s genitalia. Many today would be viewed as ludicrous.
There were many other such devices developed in the early 1900s with the advent of electricity. Quack electrical devices using mild electrical current or ultraviolet light, along with pills and liquid remedies, promised miracles.
With an unregulated marketplace, unscrupulous venders thrived. Even well known pharmaceutical companies, such as Bayer, were not beyond reproach with their share of patent medicines. With the expansion of newspapers and other media, advertising of these products exploded, thus contributing to their proliferation.
Regardless, they weren’t without critics. Some physicians and medical societies tried to warn the public pointing out the remedies were worthless from a medical point of view. Rather, they were a major cause of alcoholism and drug addictions. They were joined in their opposition by the temperance movement of the late 1800s who demanded manufacturers disclose the ingredients and use more honest language in their advertising. Of course, they were met with fierce resistance, not only by the remedy makers, but also the press who had become accustomed to huge profits made from advertising sales.
A group of these snake oil producers formed The Proprietary Association in 1881. Naturally, the press sided with them. But, by the 1890s, manufacturers had to use "red clauses" in their advertising contracts. However, these clauses simply voided the contract if a state law regulating nostrums were passed.
Later, in late 1905, Journalist Samuel Hopkins Adams began exposing the industry in a series of articles titled "The Great American Fraud", published in Colliers Weekly. The next year, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Pure Food and Drug Act.
Today, there are still those trying to peddle quack medicines, gadgets and the like. Don’t believe it? Are you going bald or trying to lose weight? Answer a few advertisements. One might be advised to heed the warning of an old adage. “Let the buyer beware.”