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Quackery And Mind Cures

Not less interesting than the therapeutic results obtained by men who
in good faith were using inert remedies that they thought effective,
are the cures obtained by men who had good reason to know that the
therapeutic methods they were using were quite inefficient. Their good
results, often loudly proclaimed by healed patients, are obtained
entirely through the patients' minds. Usually these men are supposed
to possess some wonderful therapeutic secret, which they have obtained
by a fortunate discovery, or by long years of study, though usually
their discovery is a myth and their long years of study a fable. So
long as people can be brought to believe in their powers many cures
are sure to follow their ministrations. The real secret is their
knowledge of human nature. They induce people to tap new sources of
vital energy in themselves, and somehow they succeed in bringing to
their aid this law of reserve energy. Besides, in many cases the real
reasons why patients continue to have certain symptoms once they have
been initiated, is that their worry about themselves inhibits their
natural curative power. This inhibition is prevented or obliterated by
the change of mind produced by the quack, and then the vis medicatrix
naturae brings about a cure.

Probably the oldest story that we have of a quack in our modern sense
of the word is found in the Arabian Nights, some of the stories of
which were old even in the time of Herodotus. One day Galen, famous
for his work at Rome in the second century after Christ, found a
wandering healer pursuing his avocation in his front yard. He found
also that this man succeeded in relieving certain patients for whom he
had been unable to do anything. He found that the medicines
prescribed were likely to do harm rather than good, yet many of the
patients were benefited.

Galen succeeded in winning the man's confidence, who told him his
story. He had been a weaver, but his wife thought he was not making
money enough to support her properly, so she had advised him to become
a leech. After taking lessons from a wandering quack, he set up for
himself. When Galen inquired as to his method of making a diagnosis,
he found that he did it entirely by his knowledge of human nature. He
was even able to tell what was the matter with patients at a distance
when friends came to demand medicine for them.

We think that such ready deception was possible only in earlier times,
when education was not widely diffused and when belief in
superstitions was fostered. Any such idea completely ignores the
modern status of the quack and the success that he meets among even
the more intelligent members of the community. Indeed, with the
diffusion of information in modern times the quack has secured a wider
audience. Superficial ideas of science are disseminated by the
newspapers and by the magazines, people think that they understand all
about it, and then these ideas are turned to their own advantage by
the irregular practitioners of medicine. We have quacks by the score
in all the centers of population, making a livelihood by exploiting
the ailing, and serving to no small extent to create a feeling of
popular discontent towards the physician, because that serves the
purpose of quackery. Indeed, it is during the past century or a little
more that some of the most striking examples of quackery have

Cagliostro.--Cagliostro, whose story is told in Dumas' "Memoirs of a
Physician," and an excellent account of whose life may be found in
Carlyle's "Miscellanies," is one of the great quacks and humbugs of
history. He began his supposed medical work at Strasburg by the modest
claim that during his travels in the East he had found a series of
remedies which made old people young. In proof of his power to do this
he exhibited his wife. She was a handsome young woman of very shady
reputation whom he had married on his travels. She professed to be
sixty years of age, though she was really under thirty and looked it,
but she claimed that she had a son who had served for many years in
the Dutch army. This imposition was so effective that in Strasburg,
and subsequently in Paris, the charming pair collected large sums from
wealthy old persons, especially from women on whom the marks of time
had begun to show, and who expected, as the result of the treatment,
to be shortly as young and as handsome-looking as Madame Cagliostro

We might think that it is quite impossible for any such a deception as
this supposed renewal of youth to be practiced in our more enlightened
day when popular education is so widely diffused. We must not forget,
however, that the newspapers bring us evidence every month of some old
person who is quite sure that something that was being done for him
was, if not renewing his youth, at least giving him back much of his
pristine vigor, healing his aches and pains, and enabling him to take
up his work once more. In treating the ravages of old age, which would
seem to be altogether beyond any influence of psychotherapy, some of
the most striking results are obtained. New therapeutic methods for
the old come into vogue every year. As they grow older, people
become discouraged and so do not exert even the natural energy that
they have for the maintenance of health and the keeping up of
strength. Their discouragement keeps them from exercising enough, and
this decreases appetite and sleep, and as a consequence there are many
disturbances of function. All of this disappears as soon as they feel
encouraged. Brown Sequard and his extract of testicular tissues is a
typical example of how strong suggestion may influence the old and
make them think that they are renewing their vigor and strength, and
even their youth.

Perkins, Prince of Quacks.--Shortly after Cagliostro an American
succeeded in using a very simple idea to gain world fame and at the
same time to make an immense amount of money. He was a Connecticut
Yankee with the typical name, Elisha Perkins. Dr. Perkins must have
been born under a lucky star; at least he lived in fortunate
circumstances for his purposes. Galvani's discovery of the twitchings
that occur in the frog's legs when a nerve-muscle preparation or its
equivalent was touched by metals in contact, had aroused world-wide
discussion as to the place of electricity and magnetism in biology.
Volta's brilliant experiments, which led to the invention of the
Voltaic Pile, still further increased men's interest in this subject.
It was then that Dr. Perkins came to exploit these electrical and
magnetic ideas in medicine by means of a very simple invention. It was
indeed the simplicity of his apparatus that made its appeal even more
wide than would otherwise have been the case, and, be it said, left a
larger measure of profit for the inventor.

Oliver Wendell Holmes in his "Medical Essays" [Footnote 4] has told
the story of what may be called the rise and fall of tractoration. Any
physician who wants to appreciate the real significance of cured cases
should read Holmes' essay. We quote:

[Footnote 4: Houghton, Mifflin Co., Boston.]

Dr. Elisha Perkins was born at Norwich, Connecticut, in the year
1740. He had practiced his profession with a good local reputation
for many years, when he fell upon a course of experiments, as it is
related, which led to his great discovery. He conceived the idea
that metallic substances might have the effect of removing diseases,
if applied in a certain manner; a notion probably suggested by the
then recent experiments of Galvani, in which muscular contractions
were found to be produced by the contact of two metals with the
living fiber. It was in 1796 that Perkins' discovery was promulgated
in the shape of the Metallic Tractors, two pieces of metal, one
apparently iron and the other brass, about three inches long, blunt
at one end and pointed at the other. These instruments were applied
for the cure of different complaints, such as rheumatism, local
pains, inflammations, and even tumors, by drawing them over the
affected parts very lightly for about twenty minutes. Dr. Perkins
took out a patent for his discovery, and traveled about the country
to diffuse the new practice.

[Footnote 5: (Transcriber: This footnote is not numbered in the
text but appears to refer to the preceding paragraph.): In one of
Plautus' plays there is a curiously interesting expression that is
recalled by this subject. The dramatist described one of his
characters, Sosia, as thrown into a sleep by the manipulations of
Mercury. These manipulations are described as tractim
tangere--that is, to touch strokingly. It would remind one very
much of Perkins' Tractors, and in this regard the fact that
Mercury was to the Romans, besides being the messenger of the
gods, the divinity of thieves, seems not without interest.]

Just what the tractors were composed of may be found in the
description of them filed with an application for a patent in the
Rolls Chapel Office in London. They were not simply two different
metals, but a combination of many metals, with even a little of the
precious metals in them, partly because of the appeal that this
would make to the multitude, as chloride of gold did to our own
generation, but doubtless mainly because the claim of precious metals
entering into the composition enabled the inventor to sell his
tractors at a better price.

Dr. Holmes continues:

Perkins soon found numerous advocates of his discovery, many of them
of high standing and influence. In 1798 the tractors had crossed the
Atlantic, and were publicly employed in the Royal Hospital at
Copenhagen. About the same time the son of the inventor, Mr.
Benjamin Douglass Perkins, carried them to London where they soon
attracted attention. The Danish physicians published an account of
their cases in a respectable octavo volume, containing numerous
instances of alleged success. In 1804 an establishment, honored with
the name of the Perkinean Institution, was founded in London. The
transactions of this institution were published in pamphlets, the
Perkinean Society had public dinners at the Crown and Anchor, and a
poet celebrated their medical triumphs. [Footnote 6]

[Footnote 6:
"See pointed metals, blest with power t' appease
The ruthless rage of merciless disease,
O'er the frail part a subtle fluid pour,
Drenched with the invisible galvanic shower,
Till the arthritic staff and crutch forego
And leap exulting like the bounding roe!"]

Miss Watterson [Footnote 7] tells how he attracted attention. Like all
successful quacks, he had an inborn genius for advertising.

[Footnote 7: "Mesmer and Perkins's Tractors,"
International Clinics, Vol. III, Series 19. 1909.]

He lived in the house once occupied by John Hunter [how
characteristic this is--the first quack we mentioned in this
chapter, took up his work in Galen's front yard], and in 1804 the
Perkinean Institute was opened, but by the end of 1802, 5,000 cases
had already been treated. Lord Rivers was president. Sir William
Barker, Vice-President [Prominent legislators, lawyers, bankers
always lend their names.] Twenty-one physicians, nineteen surgeons,
and the leading veterinaries succumbed to the influence of the magic
tractors. One "eminent physician" who had had 30 guineas from a
country patient and had done him no good was very angry when the
sick man took to Perkinism.

"Why, I could have cured you in the same way with my old brick-bat
or tobacco pipe, or even my fingers."

"Then why, sir," answered the patient in a stern voice (Perkins
quotes this), "did you dishonorably pick my pocket when you had the
means of restoring me to health?"

In some 176 pages young Perkins gives us the pick of 2,000 cases who
had, of course, been foolish enough at first to put faith in the
ordinary physician and his drugs.

In Bath, particularly, where aristocratic London went, as they do
to-day, to repair the damage wrought by a season in town, the
Tractor Cure was the talk of the place. But an enemy dwelt there, a
Dr. Haygarth, an unbeliever. He, with a certain Dr. Falconer,
fabricated a pair of false tractors. Five cases of gout and
rheumatism were operated on by the conspirators, who discussed in a
light tone the wonders of magnetism as they described circles,
squares and triangles with the sham tractors. "We were almost afraid
to look each other in the face lest an involuntary smile should
remove the mask from our faces," says Haygarth, but the two
assistant doctors, unaware of what was being done, were almost
converted to Perkinism when they saw the five patients slowly
mending under the treatment. One man experienced such burning pain
that he begged to wait till the next day. [Footnote 8]

[Footnote 8: Compare the first effects of the Leyden Jar, related
in the chapter on Pseudo-Science.]

So rapid, and so many were the hospital cures wrought by these two
doctors, that patients crowded to them and they could hardly spare
five minutes to eat. They amused themselves inventing other
instruments made of common nails and sealing wax, and effected with
them cures, while they sent a pair of false tractors to Sir
William Watson in London and Dr. Moncriffe in Bristol, who operated
with them with wonderful results.

It must not, however, be thought that the uneducated, or the
unskilled, or even merely unoccupied, were the only ones taken in by
the supposed power of Perkins' Tractors. As we have seen, many
physicians did not hesitate to avow themselves publicly as believers
in this new and marvelous application of magnetism to human healing.
It is true that the only thing we know about the men who became
advocates of this new instrumental therapeusis, is their connection
with it. The attention of the scientific world was rather cleverly
managed. Dr. Perkins presented a pair of his tractors and the book
that he had written about their use to the Royal Society. The custom
of that learned body was to accept such presentations by a formal
letter of thanks and place the objects and books on their shelves. No
formal investigation of the claims to scientific consideration of such
presentations was made. All possible advantage was taken of the fact
that the Royal Society had accepted the new invention and had publicly
thanked the discoverer for it.

How characteristically recent this old story is; it is renewed on
every possible occasion and wears all the familiar aspect of modern
devices for securing recognition and obtaining the apparent
approbation or recommendation of some scientific society or
institution. We had an example of it a few years ago when a nostrum
exploiter signed the register of an International Congress immediately
after a great medical investigator and then used a photograph of the
names for advertising purposes.

How did the tractors secure the vogue they enjoyed? Those who believed
in them did so not because of the scientific theory that animal
magnetism or magnetic influence was behind them, nor because of the
plausible ways of the Connecticut Yankee, but because of the
unquestioned and unquestionable facts of actual healing that they saw
in connection with the use of the tractors. Every one of these
applications of science to medicine that has proved to be
pseudo-scientific after enthusiasm subsides has made its appeal
through the cures effected by it. Cures are what Eddyism advances to
support its claims, cured patients are presented as their most
effective argument by the osteopaths, cured symptoms are the proofs
for Hahnemannism, but none of these systems of treatment ever cured as
many cases in a corresponding time as did Perkins' tractors. They
cured all sorts of physical ills, but their only effect was exerted
through the mind.

Holmes wrote:

Let us now look at the general tenor of the arguments addressed by
believers to sceptics and opponents. Foremost of all, blazoned at
the head of every column, loudest shouted by every triumphant
disputant, held up as paramount to all other considerations,
stretched like an impenetrable shield to protect the weakest advocate
of the great cause against the weapons of the adversary, was
that omnipotent monosyllable which has been the patrimony of cheats
and the currency of dupes from time Immemorial--Facts! Facts! FACTS!
First came the published cases of the American clergymen,
brigadier-generals, almshouse governors, representatives,
attorneys and esquires. Then came the published cases of the
surgeons of Copenhagen. Then followed reports of about one hundred
and fifty cases, published in England, "demonstrating the efficacy
of the metallic practice" in a variety of complaints, both upon
the human body and on horses, etc. But the progress of facts in
Great Britain did not stop here. Let those who rely upon the numbers
of their testimonials, as being alone sufficient to prove the
soundness and stability of a medical novelty digest the following
from the report of the Perkinistic Committee. "The cases published
(in Great Britain) amounted, in March last, the date of Mr. Perkins'
last publication, to about five thousand. Supposing that not more
than one cure in three hundred, which the tractors have performed,
has been published, and the proportion is probably much greater,
it will be seen that the number, to March last, will have exceeded
one million five hundred thousand!"

It is not surprising that with such "facts" behind them the tractors
attracted deep and wide attention. A contemporary tells of it and the
fate of the inventor:

A gentleman in Virginia sold a plantation and took the pay for it in
tractors. Nothing was more common than to sell horses and carriages
to buy them. But the worst (or the best) of it was, yellow fever was
raging in New York, and Perkins thought he could cure the fever with
the tractors and fell a victim to the fever himself.

Success of Quackery.--Always in the history of quackery and, indeed,
in the history of all therapeutics, the appeal is to the cures that
have been effected. This is the only evidence, of course, that can be
adduced for the development of therapeutics, and yet the history of
medicine makes it clear how carefully supposed cures must be analyzed
if they are really to mean anything. Mesmer could adduce thousands of
cured cases. Perkins could do the same. Every quack in history, from
Galen's weaver, who became a leech, down to the last street corner
nostrum vendor, does the same thing. When on the strength of supposed
cures, then, a new system of therapeutics is introduced, it is much
more likely than not that there is no foundation for the claims made.
We have had ever so many more experiences of disappointment after the
introduction of remedies which cured at the beginning of their
history, than we have had of remedies that maintain themselves after
prolonged experience. It is the attitude of scepticism and suspended
judgment until after a remedy or method of treatment has been tried on
many different kinds of cases in varying circumstances that
constitutes the only efficient safeguard against repeating the
unfortunate errors of old times in the matter of drugs and remedial
measures. If the public could be made to realize this, they would be
much less easily taken in.

What the quacks cure are not always imaginary ills, but often ills
that are very real, at least to the patients, and the symptoms of
which are relieved by the confidence aroused in the new remedy and the
representations of the supposed discoverer, who, in spite of the
exaggerated claims which he makes, somehow succeeds in catching the
trust of patients. Very often this process initiated by the quack is
really only the beginning of the cure.

In most people a vicious circle of pathological subsidiary causes is
formed when anything becomes the matter. Patients are persuaded that a
serious illness is ahead of them. This keeps them from exercising as
much as before. Becoming overcareful of their diet, they reduce it
below the normal limit for healthy activity. This causes them to have
less energy for work and disturbs their sleep. Then a host of minor
symptoms, supposed to be due to the disease, whatever it is or they
think it is, but really consequent upon the unhealthy habits that have
formed, begin to develop. Just as soon as confidence in their power to
regain health is restored to these people, a virtuous circle, to
use the Latin word virtue in its etymological sense, of strength and
courage, is formed. Everything conspires to stimulate the patients;
they live more naturally, the subsidiary symptoms consequent upon
their bad habits disappear and the disappearance of each one of them
means for the patients a new assurance of triumph over disease. They
attribute every improvement to the remedy they happen to be taking,
though most of them are due to the changes in their habits, their
diversion of mind, and the new energy released by their sense of

An excellent example of how some of these mental persuasions in
quackery act, and of how the cure is often really due to the physician
who previously treated the case, though it is credited to the quack,
may be found in the story that Hilton tells in his "Rest and Pain":

When this patient was first seen by a surgeon, he was thought to be
laboring under some disease of the bladder and kidneys, for he had
severe lumbago, pain over the bladder, and offensive urine. There
had been no suspicion of anything wrong as regards the spine. He was
a master painter and a house decorator, and was monstrously
conceited, thinking himself right and everybody else wrong. When I
explained to him, after careful examination, that the spine was the
cause of the symptoms, he was not satisfied with my opinion and
without my knowledge consulted Sir Benjamin Brodie, who also assured
him that his spine was diseased and told him that he must rest it by
lying down. To this he then assented. As he could not be controlled
in his own house, I persuaded him to go to Guy's Hospital, where he
had got nearly well; but he was very impatient, and would not remain
long enough under my care to be quite cured. He returned home,
gradually improved, and was getting quite well when some pseudo
friend advised hydropathy and homeopathy--it did not matter which
of the two--as "the thing" to cure him. After a few months he was
perfectly restored, not by either hydropathy or homeopathy, but,
no doubt, by nature. The man, however, feels convinced that
hydropathy and homeopathy cured him. It so happens, gentlemen, that
sometimes we do not get the degree of credit which perhaps belongs
to us.

To Mr. Hilton's reflections one is tempted to add that many of these
patients, after having been seriously ill, cannot bring themselves to
think that they will gradually get well by the forces of nature. Even
after they have improved very much they are still inclined to think
that that improvement is illusory or will relapse because they have
not been "cured," that is, actively treated, in some way so that a
"cure" should result. When they are nearly well, because of properly
directed rest and nursing, someone recommends some irregular form of
treatment. They take it up and this gives them confidence that they
are being cured. This state of mind makes the ultimate steps of their
recovery more rapid than it otherwise would be. As a consequence, the
irregular gets the credit. Immediately after this case Mr. Hilton
tells the story of another case in which a "rubber" got all the credit
for the cure. It is evident that the modern osteopath has only
somewhat systematized what had been in existence generations ago.

All this tendency of human nature to respond to anything that is done
for it, provided the promise of cure goes with it, is taken advantage
of by the quack, sometimes unconsciously, for his own purposes.
Results, as a rule, are secured, in spite of the remedies that he
suggests, which in most cases do harm rather than good. Of the
thousands of remedies that have been introduced by quacks, not one now
remains, though every one of them produced wonderful cures on a
great many patients at some time or other. It is the duty of the
physician to secure just as good results honestly. He must influence
the patient's mind favorably so as to bring about a modification of
habits and a hopeful outlook on life, in spite of whatever ailment
there may be. If he can do so he will have in his hands the best
therapeutic measure that has been employed in all the history of
medicine. It is the most universally applicable. It will cure, that is
help, all forms of disease. It will relieve many of the symptoms of
even incurable diseases. It will occasionally arouse the resistive
vitality of the patient to such an extent that even apparently
incurable diseases will be overcome. This is the lesson that the
modern student of medicine must draw from the history of quackery.

Next: Nostrums And The Healing Power Of Suggestion

Previous: Suggestion And Pseudo-science

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