The word ‘quack’ comes from the old Dutch word quacksalver - ‘one who quacks (boasts) about the virtue of his salves’. Medical professionals regularly used the word ‘quack’ to discredit anyone whom they disagreed with, especially unqualified healers. But a genuine ‘quack’ is someone who sells medicine for treatment while knowing that it doesn't work.
The high peak of quackery was in the 1700s. Large cities such as London and Paris attracted quacks because both England and France had weak regulations against their practices. Other countries such as Austria and Russia had harsh regulations which were brought in not only to protect the public but to maintain the ‘professional’ status of trained doctors. An attempt in England in 1748 to prevent the sale of medicines by anyone except doctors failed. It was only in 1858 that a medical act set up a ‘Medical Register’ of qualified doctors.
Quacks took advantage of people’s fears. They came out in force during plague or cholera epidemics. Other quacks made fortunes out of useless remedies for common aches and pains - stomach pain, headaches, bowel disorders, and so on. There was a special market in quack beauty products and love potions. They also loved to take advantage of the latest scientific discoveries, selling cures using magnetism, electricity or X-rays.
Famous quacks relied on having style and personal charisma. They aimed at rich patients. There was a strong element of drama in quack medicine and the most successful quacks spent lavishly to draw people in, putting on medicine ‘shows’ to entertain them, and writing books or pamphlets to advertise their products.
Effective scientific medicine gradually undercut the old quack trades, as did pharmaceutical and training regulations. But unregulated practitioners operating in today's medical marketplace continue to be described as quacks by some in the medical profession.
Related Themes and Topics
R E McGrew, ‘Quackery’, Encyclopedia of Medical History (London: Macmillan, 1985), pp 294-298
R Porter, Health for Sale: Quackery in England 1650-1850 (Manchester: Manchester University Press 1989)
An acute contagious fever with high levels of mortality. Both the 'Black Death' that swept Europe in the 1340s and the Great Plague of London in 1665 are believed to have been bubonic plague.
A sudden widespread occurance of an infection with high numbers of people affected.