Popular Science Monthly/Volume 48/April 1896/Quacks and the Reason of Them



THE story is told in Joubert's Popular Errors concerning Medicine, published at Bordeaux, France, in 1579, that one Gonelle, a jester at the court of the Duke of Ferrara, insisted once upon a time that the trade which had the most followers was that of doctor. To prove his assertion, he left his home one morning to go to the palace with his nightcap on and his jaws wrapped up. The first person he met stopped him with the question, "What is the matter with you, Gonelle?" "A terrible toothache." "Oh, is that all? I'll tell you what will cure it." And every person he met had some advice to give him. When the jester reached the duke's chamber, the same question and answer were repeated. "Ah," said the prince, "I know of something that will take the pain right away." Gonelle instantly threw up his kerchief, saying: "And you too, monseigneur, are a doctor; I have only passed through one street in coming from my house to you, and have counted more than two hundred of them. I believe I could find ten thousand in the city." Whether the story is true or false, it could be told again in our days, and Gonelle would win his wager without dispute. Everybody has had opportunities to try the experiment; and there is probably no one who has not permitted himself to give friendly counsel to an ailing person in passing—good advice: "Such a person was cured by such a remedy; try it"; and to jeer at the doctors, who know nothing about the matter.

It is not strange, in view of this instinctive tendency to sympathize in the sufferings of another and to assist as far as possible in curing them, that false doctors, charlatans, should have had their day, even if only briefly at a time, in all ages and in all quarters of the world. We can find examples of them as far back in the world's history as we have a mind to go; but the typical quacks date from the end of the sixteenth century. Beginning with this period, reputations have been established the remembrance of which has been sent down to us. Charlatans have also had their times of trouble, but the species has been preserved and perpetuated from generation to generation, from century to century, and still flourishes. Quacks still invest themselves with embroidered cloaks, wigs, and indescribable hats, or something like them, and with the help of the most astonishing blandness sell their wares, which are warranted to cure all diseases. It is not easy to learn to gain the ear of the throng, but some persons are marvelously skillful at it. Some quacks engage exclusively in special lines of practice, while others will offer a balm sovereign against all diseases. I recollect that when I was a child one Zozo passed regularly from one village to another at the time of the rural festivals, selling a vermifuge, the praises of which he sounded in a speech whose eloquent persuasiveness I have never heard excelled. The tradition is preserved also in Paris of Dr. Napolitano, who used to make his perorations in 1815, dressed in a magnificent scarlet cloak trimmed with gimp and gilt; of Duchesne, who inclosed himself in a sack and pulled a tooth with one hand and fired a pistol with the other; of Lartaud, chiropodist to the Emperor of Morocco, etc.

The type of the plumed charlatan, such as is represented in Gerard Dow's picture in the Munich Museum and Du Jardin's in the Louvre, is declining, and is now met less frequently in the large cities. It is giving place to another type, more modest in its bearing, and less noisy—the empiric, or quack doctor. He, too, lived in the former centuries, as is shown in an eighteenth-century picture of a wandering surgeon torturing a poor fellow for some trouble in his shoulder (Fig. 1). Another picture (Fig. 2) represents Michel Schuppach, known as the mountain doctor, giving a consultation in his rustic apothecary shop to a lady of the court who has two lords attending her. The corpulent old fellow is calmly looking at the flask containing the potion he is preparing, while a servant is waiting to give him the flasks he will require for completing the mysterious remedy.

Stories of these empirics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries might be cited by hundreds. The memoirs of the time are full of recitals of their prowess, and sometimes of their failures. Ducerf had an oil of guaiacum which, whether taken internally or rubbed on, would cause the disappearance of any disease; Caretto, an Italian who pretended to be a marquis, sold a wonderful remedy for two louis d'or per drop. A doctor of Chaudrais, near Mantes, a peasant of much good sense, who sold simples and roots, was extraordinarily popular for a few years, and then lost his constituents one by one. Every region has had some great man of this sort. The Zouave Jacob was all the fashion in Paris under the empire, and his office was never without patients from morning till evening. A Moorish doctor of Frais Vallen, Algeria, was consulted with almost incredible faith by his countrymen and by Europeans, and gave, with his limited list of remedies—a few herbs, purgatives, and extract of cresses—some really philosophical advice, and manifested fine qualities of intelligence. Not long ago a practitioner of these arts took rooms in the best hotel PSM V48 D905 A quack surgeon of the 18th century.jpgFig. 1.—A Quack Surgeon of the Eighteenth Century.
(From an engraving of the time.)
in Havre and advertised by every channel the wonderful merits of the dynamotherapeutic institute. All diseases were cured by the application of plates. The innocents flocked to him, but when they found that they were hoaxed the joker had gone.

Besides these false doctors and surgeons without diplomas, like the bone-setters, there is a whole class of amateur doctors, such as met Gonelle, ready to give advice, some in pure philanthropy, others less disinterested. The members of the French Academy of Medicine have an hour or two of fun every year at the reading of the report on secret remedies. An ingenious schemer fancies he has some potent remedy and sends the receipt to the academy; or, perhaps, it gets there indirectly. I will not venture to assert that the formula may not be indorsed sometimes—recommendations are so cheap. Among these authors of cures are illiterate persons, shepherds, furriers, country ministers, teachers, and nurses. Here, for instance, is a previously unknown recipe taken from an old notebook; here is a remedy brought down from father to son, the composition of which has been kept in the family for generations. This one will cure every disease; that one, of more discreet pretensions, is only good for some particular disorder, generally an incurable one. A court bailiff prescribes an infallible remedy for epilepsy, consisting of a cat's skin applied to the back, rubbing the belly with ointment, and old brandy in the loins. All are made out after a model like this, and can be judged from it. A vast number of popular errors are built on the advice of these pretended specialists. A whole inventory of medicines, each more absurd than the others, may be found in books on madness. Do

PSM V48 D906 A rustic pharmacy.jpg

Fig. 2.—Rustic Pharmacy. An exact representation of the room in which Michel Shappach, known as Médecin de la Montagne (the mountain doctor), held his consultations. Drawn from life by G. Locher in 1774. Engraved at Basle by Barthélemy Hubner in 1775. (Reduced from an engraving in the collection of M. Gaston Tissandier.

not dispute us, say the authors; we have the facts to prove the reliability of the doctor and the sureness of the remedy.

It is certain that, whatever we may say or do, the tendency to these superstitions is not changed. The spread of instruction and of the knowledge of hygiene is of little avail in the contest against inveterate prejudices. Matters are much worse in the field of medicine proper.

There is a story of a doctor who recognized an old servant in a quack who was doing a large business, and asked him how he accounted for his success. "How many of these fifty persons passing by," the quack said, "do you suppose are sensible persons?" "Six or seven," said the doctor. "I will give you ten of them for your clients, the rest are mine." This is not complimentary to four fifths of the human race.

I believe that we can explain how even educated and intelligent people can place credence in the virtue of strange remedies and the knowledge of absolute ignoramuses. Medicine is not, as is commonly said, the art of healing; it is the art of usually mitigating and sometimes healing. There are too many incurable diseases, or those which become so with age, by fatigues of all sorts, or by excess, for a doctor to be able to pretend to do anything but soothe and reduce the pains. A patient afflicted with such troubles can not bring himself to believe that he is condemned without remedy; and he will at any price try the possible and the impossible in the hope of finding a cure. The impotency of medicine as against his trouble induces the unhappy man to cast himself in time into the hands of any quack who can insinuate himself into his confidence. "My remedy is infallible," the quack will tell him; "try it." The spirit grows weak and gives way under the suffering that tortures and yields not; the animal, we might say, resumes its rights; and the patient abandons himself to one who will promise a wonderful cure without reserve. Then there have been wonderful cures. At the time when little was known or knowledge was imperfect about nervous affections, so curious, various, and manifold in their manifestations, what seemed like resurrections, almost miracles, sometimes took place. Such facts are satisfactorily explained now, but they were formerly astonishing and surprising. The crowd hurrahed as over a prodigy, and gave absolute confidence to it. It could not be otherwise. Whatever may happen, there will always be credulous people and always men disposed to deceive them.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from La Nature.

A class in botany, under the direction of Prof. Charles E. Bessey. formed a part of the Colorado Summer School at Colorado Springs last summer. The city is situated at the foot of Pike's Peak, and within easy reach of the vegetation of the plains, the canons, the foothills, and the strictly Alpine regions. The numerous brooks and mountain streams supplied an abundance of aquatic forms, while the damp canons furnished all kinds of fungous growths. Lichens, mosses, and ferns were plentiful, so that every section of the vegetable kingdom was well represented. The course included lessons on the structure, physiology, classification, and distribution of plants; the lower water plants, the degenerated plants, the mossworts, and the naked and covered seeded plants. The work was divided into an elementary and an advanced course. The attendance, exceeding one hundred, was mainly composed of teachers of maturer years, in all departments of school work.