The Quack Doctor
What’s this blog all about?
I started The Quack Doctor as a useful way of categorising some notes I’d made about historical medical advertisements – but it turned out that lots of other people liked to read about them too! From its original focus on patent remedies, the scope of the blog has expanded to include anything health-related and advertised, whether or not it was ever considered the work of quacks. These days I’m mostly looking at the 19th and early 20th centuries, but there are some earlier adverts in the blog archives. I also occasionally post about more general history of medicine topics, or transcribe tales of strange medical cases.
Why medical and pharmaceutical advertising?
Loads of historical adverts are beautiful and fascinating, but I became specifically interested in advertised medicines when I was using newspapers during the research for my novel. They weren’t that much to do with the book, so I set them aside and only later decided to do something with them. They give an insight into the medical marketplace at a time when individuals were not so much patients as consumers, responsible for making decisions about their own health, and with nothing to fall back on when things got serious.
The remedy you just wrote about is completely legit, you ignoramus!
Please note that by including something on this site I am not automatically condemning it as quackery, so there is no need to email me going ‘waaahh, waaahh, that medicine contains arnica, which brought my dead uncle back to life, so your [sic] wrong’. Any advertising related to human or animal health might be included here. While a minority of the practitioners I write about were baddies out to rip people off, many of the remedies were everyday over-the-counter products that the average Joe might purchase as one of various treatment options. I don’t see these consumers as a homogeneous mass constituting ‘the gullible’ (a term I’ve often heard used in connection with historical proprietary remedies). They were of as varied intelligence, circumstances and character as any group of modern consumers.
Are you laughing at the past?
The adverts I feature can be entertaining – sometimes owing to subsequent changes in the meaning of words, sometimes because of the accompanying illustrations, and sometimes because the claims are as far-fetched as those of the crapola flogged in today’s Sunday supplements. But I don’t see the past as a foreign country, or open to ridicule. To me, history is just about people. People dealing with many different circumstances in ways that are sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, or anything in between. I don’t explicitly draw comparisons with modern products, but readers will no doubt be able to spot similarities between historical and current remedies.
Who runs the site?
My name is Caroline Rance and I am an MA student (one somewhat stricken in years) studying Medicine, Science and Society at Birkbeck College, University of London. My dissertation is about charlatanry in the treatment of male sexual dysfunction in Britain, 1850-1870.
I didn’t want to put a photo of myself on here, but to give you the general idea, I’m short and fat with dark bobbed hair and a gormless/embarrassed/drunken expression depending what time of day you catch me at.
I am not a health professional. I did work for a while in an NHS complaints department, which is why I no longer have a soul, but this didn’t qualify me to give medical advice. Please go to your GP rather than consult me about your symptoms (yes, some people really do this).
How do I contact you?
If you have a comment about a specific post on this blog then please, you know, leave a comment rather than emailing me. But if you desperately need to ask me something, you can send an email, or get in touch via Twitter or Facebook. My first novel, Kill-Grief, set in a 1750s hospital, is available from Amazon, or you can bung me a few quid by Paypal and I’ll send you the signed one I bought back from my local charity shop.
Can you help with my research?
I’m happy to receive your questions, but might not be able to respond for a while as I have a demanding day job, a small child, a book to write, an MA to attain, various dependent animals to care for, and pretty much no sleep. Any research I could do for you is probably no better than that which you could do for yourself if you could be arsed. I will, however, always do my best to respond to polite messages.
Would you believe, about 70% of the people who contact me for help never even reply to say thank you? I don’t need gushing gratitude but I worry that they never received my email, so a quick note to say you got it is always appreciated, even if what I said was total crap.
The historical information on this site is intended for research and entertainment purposes and is NOT a source of medical advice, nor is it possible to buy any of the remedies described. (Sorry if this sounds obvious, but you know what people are like.)
I hope this blog will encourage you to share my love for the history of medicine. Thank you for reading.