Tag Archives: Lobotomy

Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang and Nate Petersen

The human body has been an enigma since time began when Adam and Eve discovered the meaning of nakedness. Mankind has been obsessed with maintaining a sort of harmony of body and soul which has led to some interesting “techniques” flavored by both our passions and our ignorance of scientific facts. Even if a procedure had some foothold in curing our ailments, there were those who deigned to use their talents to take a popular idea, twist it up, package it prettily, and make a profit off of the foolish purchasers who paid big bucks for something which at best had a placebo effect or at worst could kill you.

Which brings us to the book, Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang and Nate Petersen which provides an in-depth discussion of the various “cures” which have been perpetrated on society since “written” records have existed (this includes drawings on cave walls). The sixty seven entries fall under five categories – Elements, Plants and Soil, Tools, Animals, and Mysterious Powers. Kant, a doctor, and Petersen, a journalist, investigate various medical techniques giving a complete historical background of their usage along with fascinating anecdotes, also delving into the lives of those individuals who took advantage of the public’s ignorance to sell a product they knew was worthless (such as snake oil without the snake or the oil). This book covered a multitude of topics relevant to the 21st Century reader. It will surprise you to discover how many recognizable names supported and even died using some of the listed cures – even a couple of United States Presidents. In my review copy, the index was incomplete and the numerous illustrations and photos were labeled in a language other than English, although I assume this will be corrected before publication.

It wasn’t until the last century that we started to recognize the value of cleanliness so our forbearers suffered from all sorts of maladies related to infections that set in from the after effects of common diseases. To top it off, “doctors” had the idea that out was better than in, so techniques such as bloodletting, leeches, and enemas (they were obsessed with excrement), were commonly used to alleviate the body of harmful elements. Of course, constipation must have been common because opiates in various manifestations were used on a regular basis. Mothers little pill in the form of laudanum could easily become addictive. It did relieve ones’ pain, however, although an overdose was lethal. Considering heroin use, a cheap opiate, has become such an epidemic in the United States that the Governor of New York State has called for people to walk around with syringes full of narcon (an antidote to a heroin overdose) tells the tale that we haven’t learned enough from our past mistakes.

Besides narcotics (which included ether and laughing gas), people also were “cured” with known poisons such as mercury, arsenic, and strychnine. When Marie Curie discovered radiation it became a tool for treating cancer and while it is still a useful tool (now a limited dose pinpointed at an exact location) it originally was taped to the body or even inserted into the vagina to treat cervical cancer. While I’m sure this reduced tumors, the radiation poisoning might kill you instead. Ignorantly, doctors would carry radon around in their pockets thus hastening their own demise.

The philosophy was often: “If some is good, more is better”. So while a hot bath would be soothing, two weeks in a hot tub might not be a good thing, especially if you had to sit in your own excrement. Other treatments included being prodded with a hot poker, swallowing pearls and gold, or drilling a hole in the head and letting the brain leak out.

Perhaps the most disgusting item was the eating of human flesh (right next to drinking the blood of people being executed, preferably from a human skull). Mummy remains were also a popular repast, and when mummies became scarce (those tomb robbers weren’t just looking for gold and gems), individuals killed by the desert elements were a good second choice.

Mesmerizing became popular in France in the 1700s, which was really a sort of mass hysteria, but after a while it fell out of favor. However, hypnotism was a natural progression which still is in use today to treat various ailments such as quitting smoking or losing weight. It was also used as a type of anesthetic at the time when there was a lack of such products.

The upsetting point is that despite our knowledge of medicine, quackeries still exist in 2017. Non-doctors make their “inventions” sound miraculous when in reality there is no scientific evidence to the truth in their advertising. In order to be an acceptable medical practice, the results have to be reproducible. Many people still believe that vaccinations cause autism based on one doctor’s discoveries even though the medical community has debunked this idea. Still, enough children have skipped their required shots to result in more than one measles epidemic.

Alternative” medicines, even if banned in the United States, are available in other parts of the world, taking advantage of desperate people who will try anything, a fact which the shysters count on when they package their products. I was determined to find a “cure” for my dyslexic son, and even tried Irwin Glasses (tinted purple to help him follow a line of print) and Fast Forward (a computer program which was supposed to reconfigure the brain). While eventually he did learn to read (more due to his teachers and programs such as Earobics and Orton Gillingham) he is still dyslexic. My philosophy was to throw everything at the problem and see what worked. I, however, would not try any methodology which even hinted at physical damage. I didn’t mind losing money, I would mind if my son were harmed.

While fascinating, this book did have a sense of tongue and check irreverence, making witty and at times silly comments about the more outrageous “medical” promises. I thought it added some humor to an already ridiculous topic, although some might not like the mixed use of tones – at times serious and at times frivolous. However, this is one of those nonfiction books which is both entertaining and educational with an easily readable format, although it makes you wonder about some of the common approaches used in medicine today. Four stars.

A thank you to Netgalley and Workman Publishing Company for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Goodreads.


At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen

We all know there are self centered, egotistical, SOB’s out there in the world, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we want to spend time with them, even if it is only amongst the pages of a book.

Seems that’s one of the problems of At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen. Ellis Hyde and his pal Hank are privileged, silver-spoons-in-their-mouths, sons of wealthy gentlemen who spend their time in frivolous pursuits, going to parties, drinking too much, and cavalcading throughout high society, annoying the patrons and getting into trouble. The two best friends have a cohort, Madeline, a woman who enjoys their company and madcap adventures. Despite her wealthy father, Maddie has a black mark against her due to the antics of her now deceased mother, so that when she marries Ellis her welcome is anything but friendly. Then on New Years Eve in 1944, the trio are especially obnoxious, and Ellis’ parents are, shall we say, not amused with the resulting gossip, so when Ellis insults his father they are ejected from the family estate and left to fend for themselves.

Ellis, whose father (the Colonel) can’t forgive him for being rejected from the military due to a case of color blindness, decides to go to Scotland and find the Loch Ness Monster, an adventure that tainted his father’s reputation several years earlier. If Ellis could just prove the monster exists, then his now proud papa would welcome him back with open arms and reinstate his allowance.

Unfortunately there is a war going on, so they must travel overseas bunked down like commoners in a military convoy and to make matters worse, once they arrive in Scotland their welcome is less than cordial. The search for the monster is a lot more difficult than expected, and the two friend’s behavior gets more and more outrageous fueled by alcohol and the little pills prescribed to Maddie for her “nervous condition”. Maddie soon distances herself from her husband and Hank, finding more in common with the humble folks who live and work at the inn. The true personalities of each of the characters are revealed as they deal with their struggles and Maddie comes to terms with her choices in life making a decision which totally alters the fate of everyone involved leading to a twisted resolution.

While the story takes place towards the end of WWII, the war is more of a backdrop than an integral part of the story although there are black out curtains, ration books, gas masks, and several air raids. Scotland, complete with castle, is the main focus of the narrative as the inhabitants try to eke out a living in difficult times.

This was a hard book to get into, not grabbing ones’ interest until almost half way through, probably because of the despicable characters. I did borrow the audiobook, dramatically read by Justine Eyre, to get me over the hump, then finished with the written word.

I’m not sure if I buy this tale, it’s a little far fetched and I question the shift in Ellis from a spoiled brat into an evil man. Although I usually look for the good in people (in life as well as in literature), by the end of the book he had no redeeming qualities left to discuss. There was also a romance which seemed to come out of nowhere, even though there were some subtle hints of this possibility along the way.

Three stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

This review also appears on Goodreads.