Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything

By Lydia Kang, MD and Nate Pedersen

 Arriving just after the season of ghosts and ghouls called Halloween, Quackery, delves into a fascinating history of quacks and quack “cures” used throughout history to treat every variety of disease known to humans.  Lydia Kang MD, a practicing internal medicine physician, has researched over thirty of the worst “cures” including the use of arsenic, lobotomy, cannibalism, the King’s Touch (yes, all one needed was the touch of a king!) and animal magnetism as ways guaranteed to cure what ails you.

Charlatan. Quack. Con artist. Swindler. Trickster.  Words like these were used for a long time to describe those who preyed on our fear of death and sickness by peddling wares that didn’t work, hurt us, or often killed us.  But quackery isn’t always about pure deception.  Behind every misguided treatment – from Ottomans eating clay to keep the plague away to Victorian gents sitting in a mercury steam room for their syphilis to epilepsy sufferers sipping gladiator blood in ancient Rome – is the incredible power of the human desire to live.  We are willing to do or ingest just about anything just to survive.

But as this book points out, this drive to survive also can lead to incredible innovation.  Much of what we call modern medicine such as using anesthesia for surgery, sterilization protocols, and even utilizing leeches for wound healing grew out of some “quack cure” that didn’t quite work as advertised.

But there is of course a dark side.  The desire to heal and live longer is a powerful drive for doctors and wannabe healers to come up with the next “miracle cure.”  Haven’t all of us at one time googled a particular ailment hoping to find the thing that will magically heal us?  None of us are immune to wanting a quick fix.

Clearly we need to be wary of quacks – and of ourselves.  Despite increased regulation of medicines and healing modalities along with many scientific breakthroughs, quackery still reaches into every aspect of healthcare and the cosmetics industry.  This is why in many chapters you will find a present-day update.  Some quack cures, like leeches, have transformed into real, working treatments.

In summary, this book contains a brief history of the worst ways to cure everything.  Please note, this book is not for weak stomached or overly sensitive readers.  Some of the “cures” are very offensive and one may find the author quite cavalier when discussing some particularly gruesome technique.  Still, Quackery, is a fascinating read and just might help you be more wary the next time you read about the latest “instant cure.”  In addition, on just about on every page, the book contains fascinating historical illustrations, old advertisements, and photographs that alone are worth a read.

Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
November 2018 Book Review