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.