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.

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