Georgian Quacks: Doctors or Charlatans?

Ben Jonson in his play Volpone describes the Quack as a ‘turdy-facy, nasty-paty, lousy fartical rogue’.

This gives a pretty good idea of the popular opinion of quacks. However, the boundary between respected physicians and quack doctors is more blurred than you might believe. The term ‘quack’ is in fact a shortened version of early modern Dutch quacksalver; someone who cures with home remedies (1543; Dutch kwakzalver).

Doctor Humbug, an itinerant medicine vendor selling his wares from a stage with the aid of an assistant. Coloured etching, 1799 © Wellcome Library, London

Doctor Humbug, an itinerant medicine vendor selling his wares from a stage with the aid of an assistant. Coloured etching, 1799 © Wellcome Library, London

This said, a ‘quack’ is a far more insulting term than this suggests; indeed, it was more a term of abuse than anything else. It generally indicates a certain genre of medical operator; someone who claims to have miraculous cures and promotes them as ostentatiously as possible. ‘Cure-all’ medicines were frequently advertised in markets, with the quack-creator crying out their virtues from a stage.

A tooth-drawer holding up a tooth he has just extracted on stage to try and sell his skills. Etching after J. Steen © Wellcome Library, London

A tooth-drawer holding up a tooth he has just extracted on stage to try and sell his skills. Etching after J. Steen © Wellcome Library, London

Many of these people had no qualifications and would entirely fabricate their expertise. In his treatise on poisons Mead wrote that “mathematical learning will be the distinguishing mark of a physician from a quack”. However, this was not always the case.  Many so-called quacks did in fact have some kind of formal medical qualification. Academic honours could legitimately be bought from universities. Mead himself was awarded his medical degree from Padua after only a few months of being there. He then proceeded to set up his practice in his father’s house in Stepney without a licence. This is rather ironic seeing as he later became one of the members of the Royal College of Physicians tasked with checking that all physicians in London had the proper licences.

Much is made of the disgusting or even dangerous ingredients in the wonder-cures peddled by quacks. This was often the case, but quack remedies frequently had much in common with medicines given by respected physicians. Mercury was often prescribed for venereal diseases or skin problems, and all sorts of animal powders were mixed up into medicines. Mead contributed a recipe for snail water to the Pharmacopoeia Pauperum in 1718. The recipe:

Take Garden-Snails cleansed and bruised 6 gallons, Earthworms washed and bruised, 3 Gallons Of common Wormwood, Ground-Ivy, and Carduus, each one Pound and half, Penniroyal, Juniper-berries, Fennelseeds, Aniseeds, each half a Pound, Cloves and Cubebs bruised, each 3 Ounces, Spirit of Wine and Spring-water, of each 8 Gallons. Digest them together for the space of 24 Hours, and then draw it off in a common Alembick.L0030155 R. Bradley, A philosophical account of the works of nature...

This concoction was intended to cure venereal disease. Many leading physicians attached their names to cures. Even if they didn’t profit from the sales, it meant that they became household names. Mead also had his name attached to a rabies powder, his ‘Pulvis Antylisus’[1], and his friend Dr Hans Sloane promoted medicinal chocolate.

There were also plenty of quack, or simply incompetent, surgeons who would carry out questionable procedures and then leave town before people had the chance to take their bandages off. Handel lived with declining vision for the last decade of his life following failed cataract surgery by an oculist called the ‘Chevalier’ John Taylor. He underwent a procedure known as ‘couching’, in which a needle was poked into the eye and the cataract-clouded lens was pushed into the rear, out of the field of vision. The lyrics to the aria ‘Total eclipse’ from Samson where Samson laments his lost eyesight[2], were written as Handel began to go blind.  Today, operations in which cataracts are removed and the lens replaced are among ophthalmology’s most successful procedures.

An operator treating the carbuncled nose of an obese patient with “Perkins’s tractors”. Coloured aquatint after J. Gillray, 1801 © Wellcome Library, London

An operator treating the carbuncled nose of an obese patient with “Perkins’s tractors”. Coloured aquatint after J. Gillray, 1801
© Wellcome Library, London

Regular doctors tended to treat patients face-to-face with lots of contact time whereas quacks sought custom from the anonymous consumer through advertising and sales of ready-made medicines. Mead dedicated a lot of his time to seeing his wealthy patients. However, he also used to spend afternoons in coffee-houses where he would write prescriptions for apothecaries who would come to him for advice on their patients.

Many people thought that all medical men were as bad as each other. This correspondent in the Tory Tatler of Friday 8 December 1710 certainly did:

Death as an apothecary’s assistant making up medicines in a jar. Watercolour by T. Rowlandson or one of his followers © Wellcome Library, London

Death as an apothecary’s assistant making up medicines in a jar. Watercolour by T. Rowlandson or one of his followers
© Wellcome Library, London

Poor Health must needs be in a fine Condition, when so many Physicians, Quacks, Surgeons, and Apothecaries are her sworn Enemies, and whole Magazines of Pills and Drugs lie in wait for her Destructions. It is indeed often ask’d, what Disease a Man died of, Fever, Pleurisie, or the like; but properly speaking, the Question should be, not what Distemper, but what Doctor did he die of: Distempers seize Men, but the Physicians execute ‘em… For my part, I never hear an Apothecary’s Mortar ringing, but I think the Bell’s a tolling; nor read a Doctor’s Prescription, but I take it for a Passport into the next World.

While this might be a slight exaggeration, before the advent of modern medicine and diagnostic technology it must be said that medical practitioners were only sporadically effective in curing their patients.

 

I will be giving a short talk on entitled Quacks: medical charlatans of eighteenth-century London at the Foundling Museum Sunday 2 November, followed by a concert performance by flautist Michael Liu and harpist Rebecca Royce.

My next blog post will expore the contents of Mead’s impressive library and the beautiful building which housed it.

 

 


[1] Recipe: Let the patient be blooded at the arm nine or ten ounces. Take of the herb, called in Latin Lichen cinereus terrestris, in English, Ash-coloured ground liverwort, cleaned, dried, and powdered, half an ounce. Of black pepper powdered, two drachms. Mix these well together, and divide the powder into four doses, one of which must be taken every morning, fasting, for four mornings successively, in half a pint of cow’s milk warm. After these four doses are taken, the patient must go into the cold bath, or a cold spring or river, every morning fasting, for a month: he must be dipt all over, but not stay in (with his head above water) longer than half a minute, if the water be very cold. After this he must go in three times a week or a fortnight longer.

[2] Total eclipse! No sun, no moon! All dark amidst the blaze of noon! Oh, glorious light! No cheering ray To glad my eyes with welcome day! Why thus depriv’d Thy prime decree? Sun, moon, and stars are dark to me!

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