The Quacks

Early 1900’s Quack Medicine

Quackery and the quacks who promote it have been with us for centuries. It’s an interesting topic and in some ways a sad one. The first question is..why would people subject themselves to it? Quackery’s victims were in most cases people with illnesses who simply were searching for a cure. In some cases they were desperate.

snake oil cure
Snake Oil Cure

There’s probably more than a few answers to the above question. One answer has to do with the early medical associations. The medical associations, while being loosely organized, were nothing near what they are today. The other obvious answer is that available medical aid was not what it is in today’s modern world. Doctor’s didn’t have the degree of knowledge that they have today. In addition, oversight and licensing procedures were questionable at best. Thus thrived the quacks.

Quacks of the Early 1900’s

Two of the leading quacks of the early 1900’s, and there were many more, were Albert Abrams and John Brinkley. In the case of Abrams, he developed the “rheostatic dynamizer“. This was essentially a box with wires in it. Abrams would put a drop of his patients blood inside the box and then run additional wires from the box to the head of a healthy person facing west. Strange but true. When Abrams’ tapped the second persons abdomen he could not only tell his patient what was wrong with him but he could also tell him what his religion was. Incredible, unbelievable and you wouldn’t think this was true if it didn’t actually happen. It did happen. Abrams was also credited with devising the ” oscilloclast” which was an improved “rheostatic dynamizer” that he leased out to other quacks for a hefty price.

violet ray cure
Violet Ray Treatment

The Strange Doings of John Brinkley

The quacks came from a diverse background. In the case of John Brinkley, who actually did try to attend a recognized medical school but really never did, you had a “doctor” with a degree via mail from the Eclectic Medical University from Kansas City.

In 1915, for $100 Brinkley received his diploma and a license to practice medicine in eight states. Another amazing fact is that with this “medical” license goat¬† Brinkley became a U.S. Army doctor at Fort Bliss, Texas when he was inducted. For a variety of reasons this assignment lasted only a few months. After that Brinkley spent a short amount of time as a “physician and clerk” at a Kansas meat packing plant.

‘After he established himself as a small town doctor, Brinkley’s claim to fame were his “goat gland operations” which he declared would restore vitality and delay aging. He did many of these. Some were successful and some were not. His detractors would claim his patients walked in the front door vertically and exit the back door horizontally. Needless to say, the American Medical Association based in Chicago chased him down his entire life. Nevertheless, Brinkley made large sums of money.

dr john brinkley
Dr. John Brinkley, circa 1921

If that wasn’t enough, John Brinkley even ran for Kansas governor. He built hospitals for his operations and he owned a Kansas radio station to help promote his quackery. Thanks to the AMA Brinkley’s radio license was eventually rescinded but that didn’t stop him.

Brinkley approached the Mexican government in 1931 with a proposal to build a radio station across the border from Del Rio, Texas. The Mexican’s had no agreements with the U.S. Federal Radio Commission.and welcomed the idea. Brinkley built what eventually became known as the one-million wattBorder Blaster”. His new $350,000 radio station could be heard in every U.S. state plus in fifteen foreign countries. As a comparison, most U.S. radio stations at that time were putting out 5,000 watts of power.The station basically played country music and promoted Brinkley’s medical remedies and gadgets from paying advertisers. While Brinkley lost his small Kansas station he was now broadcasting to the world. Let’s remember that these were the years of the Great Depression and people were looking for miracles of any kind, especially if they were hurting. Many of the expanded audience made possible by the Border Blaster radio station liked what they heard.

This Border Blaster radio station stirred things up between the U.S. and Mexico as well as with the AMA. Lawsuits were flying left and right and as years went by Brinkley eventually lost the Mexican station as well as his palatial home in Del Rio,Texas.

quackery devices
Electro-Metobograph on display at the Science Museum of Minnesota

Advancing Science Meant Large Profits

Tens of thousands of Violet Ray Machines were sold by the quacks during the second decade of the 20th century. The quacks professed that the Violet Ray machines would restore health and one’s sex drive.

What’s interesting here is that during previous decades quite a lot was learned about electricity. What was not known by the mainstream scientific community was what real effect electricity had on humans.

Selling the Violet Ray Machines was an effort to take advantage of the publicity regarding science discoveries and turning that publicity into something totally different to make large profits off of a gullible public.

The same can be said regarding the “electric belts” which were sold under a dozen or more brand names. The mysticism of electricity was turned into an imaginary cure-all that brought in huge profits for it’s manufacturer’s. There are many other early 20th century miracle medical devices not discussed here.

Links to three additional Trips Into History articles you’ll find interesting are American Frontier / The Doctors ….. Psychics of Lily Dale New York and the Glore Psychiatric Museum in St. Joseph Missouri.

Fighting Quackery

The end to quackery, if it truly totally ended, was brought about by several things. Among these were a more organized and formal medical licensing system, better mainstream medical procedures and pharmaceuticals and along with a better educated general public.

electric belt device
Heidelberg Alternating Curren Electric Belt

As an example, today the public wants and expects dietary information labels on food purchased at the supermarket. Something totally unheard of during the 1920’s and 30’s. I suppose you could make a case that there are cure-all’s on the market today. Some also may perform much less than advertised.This is probably true. I think what stands out about the quacks of the early 20th century was the magnitude of their claims and the invasive nature of some of the treatments. Goat gland transplant operations to restore vitality would certainly qualify as one of the most outrageous.

Interesting Sites on the Subject of Quackery

This was an interesting, if not odd, era in American history and there’s much more to read about on this subject.¬† Interesting to see what you stumble on when researching somewhat of a different topic. For those wishing to research the quackery subject in more detail there are two places I’m aware of. The Kansas State Historical Society has many manuscripts and records of all sorts regarding John Brinkley. In Minnesota the St. Paul Science Museum has excellent exhibits on quackery with some of the devices like the one shown in this article on display.

The foremost book about the quackery practiced by John Brinkley is Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam by author Pope Brock.

Another excellent book regarding the practice of quackery and the quacks is Quack!: Tales of Medical Fraud from the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices by author Bob McCoy.

A third book I’d recommend is The Health Robbers: A Close Look at Quackery in America by author Stephen Barrett.

(Photos and images from the public domain)